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Piloting conduct at european and local elections

Mr. Hawkins: I beg to move amendment No. 8, in page 1, line 4, after 'must', insert—

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', if a three-quarters majority of the local authorities in the area covered by the pilot agree,'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 1, in page 1, line 18, at end insert—

'(4A) The Secretary of State must not make an order under this section specifying a region unless he has first satisfied himself that the region meets the criteria identified by the Electoral Commission for inclusion as a pilot region.'.

No. 6, in page 1, line 18, at end insert—

'(4A) The Secretary of State must not make an order under this section specifying a region which the Electoral Commission has identified as—
(a) not suitable for a pilot scheme; or
(b) a region for which the Commission does not feel able to make a positive recommendation as to its suitability.'.

No. 12, in page 1, line 19, leave out subsection (5).

No. 13, in page 2, line 3, at end insert—

'(c) Scotland;
(b) North East.'.

No. 14, in page 2, line 3, at end insert—

'(c) any region which borders Scotland;
(d) any two regions with a common boundary.'.

Mr. Hawkins: This group of amendments includes amendment No. 8, tabled by me and my right hon. and hon. Friends, amendments Nos. 1 and 6, which were tabled by the Liberal Democrats, and amendments Nos. 12 to 14, which we tabled. Naturally, I shall do the Minister the courtesy of listening to what he has to say, but I anticipate that, with the leave of the House, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and I will seek two separate Divisions, on amendments Nos. 8 and 6. However, we will hear what the Minister says before we make a final decision.

We made it clear on Second Reading that we were very suspicious about the fact that the Government had lined up massed ranks of Labour Back Benchers from Scotland and from the north-west of England in particular, who were pressing for those two areas to have pilot schemes. Also, the Government had lined up several Labour Members from the midlands, who said that there should not be pilots in that region. If that was intended by the Labour Government or by those Back Benchers to put pressure on the Electoral Commission to recommend Scotland or the north-west of England, I am glad to observe that the tactic has not worked.

Mr. Tom Harris: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hawkins: I shall certainly give way to the hon. Gentleman, whom I entirely absolve of any suspicion that I might have. He has always taken, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome rightly said, an intelligent interest in these matters and did so in Committee.

The reason why we were pleased is that, last week, after the Government must have done most of their planning for Report and Third Reading, the Electoral Commission suddenly recommended not Scotland or the north-west, but the east midlands, which I do not

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recall any Government Back Benchers calling for, and the north-east, which one or two Labour Members, including the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin), supported on Second Reading.

Mr. Harris: Does the hon. Gentleman really believe that those Members who, on Second Reading and in Committee, called for particular areas to be used as a pilot for 100 per cent. postal voting did so only because they were invited to do so by the party Whips? Does he accept that that is an insult to those hon. Members who were accurately reflecting the views of their constituents? By exempting me from his accusation, he does not get himself off the hook.

Mr. Hawkins: I repeat that I exempt the hon. Gentleman. The debate was constructed in a peculiar way last time, and I was by no means the only hon. Member to comment on it at the time.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): Given the hon. Gentleman's experience in the north-west, and given that I am sure that he recognises the success of the pilot in Chorley, does he agree that there is merit in expanding from that successful pilot to a wider area, including the north-west? Does he agree that the commissioner should take into account the wishes of local people, who prompted some of us to submit evidence?

Mr. Hawkins: I agree with the hon. Gentleman's second point. If any Member of Parliament submits evidence to the Electoral Commission, it should be taken into account, and I am sure that it was. On his first point, which was about the north-west in particular, I shall quote to him the Electoral Commission report from last week.

Mr. Forth: Before my hon. Friend does that, is he not curious about the identity of the local people who are being quoted by Labour Members? Might it not be interesting if we were told who those local people were? Are they average punters? Are they voters who are in some way dissatisfied? Might they just be—I almost hesitate to mention this to my hon. Friend—political activists who see some advantage in a particular disposition? Has he any information about that?

Mr. Hawkins: I rather think that my right hon. Friend is right. Let me cite what the Electoral Commission says about the north-west, which might increase his concern about the suggestion from a number of Labour Members that the north-west was an appropriate area in which to hold a pilot.

As one of its specific reasons for not choosing the north-west, the Electoral Commission, in paragraph 2.84 on page 19 of its report of 8 December, states:

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My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) referred to intimidation earlier. I am sure that he will agree that when the Electoral Commission, which the Government set up under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, refers to the issues that I have cited as a reason for not choosing the north-west, it is an important matter.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is nothing especially sinister in the fact that relatively few submissions were received from people in the east midlands, which has been chosen as one of the two regions. The rationale is well laid out in the document. The east midlands is the third smallest region in England and has a small number of coincident local authority elections on polling day. It has had successful pilots in recent times and supportive local authorities. We are happy about that.

Mr. Hawkins: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is happy, but the regions have not been chosen yet. He referred to a recommendation to the Government. We would be perfectly content if only one region were finally chosen for an all-postal pilot. I do not think that any Labour Back Bencher would be safe to assume that the Government were necessarily going to agree with what the Electoral Commission recommended.

Mr. David Watts (St. Helens, North) (Lab): St. Helens was involved in a pilot scheme last year, and we saw take-up double. Most hon. Members would think that that was a good thing. However, I find it strange that the Electoral Commission should say that fraud is one of the reasons why it has not chosen the north-west when that relates to the old system. The hon. Gentleman was talking about the old system, not the new one. When the Electoral Commission considered the pilot schemes, it said that it saw no evidence of fraud. Why should my voters be discriminated against in the way that it proposes?

Mr. Hawkins: The hon. Gentleman could address that point to the Electoral Commission. Perhaps he has already written to it, but he can certainly do so again. The issue is a point for the commission; I was merely quoting its report.

Joyce Quin: The hon. Gentleman recognised that I spoke in favour of the north-east as a pilot region. I am glad that that is the recommendation. In response to the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), I can say that I pressed the case for the north-east because my constituents in both the Gateshead and Sunderland parts of my area had experienced the benefits of all-postal voting and made their points strongly. That is what motivated me, as I am sure it motivated my hon. Friends.

Mr. Hawkins: I am delighted that the right hon. Lady conducted a substantial survey, as it were, of her constituents and was reflecting that in her remarks. I would be interested to see a copy of the survey, if she would be kind enough to send it to me, showing her constituents' views. That might be an answer to the interesting concern expressed by my right hon. Friend

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the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, which might be dealt with if we could see that Labour Members had commissioned and done their surveys.

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