|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Hawkins: I do not think that it would be possible to send the survey by text message, as the Minister mischievously suggests, because it would be far too longan issue that arose when we discussed problems with text voting in the previous debate.
Mr. Forth: I hope that no one would dream of attempting to provide me with information by any sort of text message, as I would be incapable of receiving such a message and even less interested were someone to attempt to send one. I would say, "Hard copy only", not only to my hon. Friend, but to the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin).
May I ask my hon. Friend not to be too seduced by what Labour Members, including even the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West say, until we can set the matter in context? We each have roughly 70,000 voters. I would want to see what proportion of that 70,000 had expressed wild abandoned enthusiasm for the pilots before I got too carried away.
Mr. Hawkins: My right hon. Friend anticipates me. I look forward to seeing the surveys, which I, too, would prefer to receive as hard copy. When we see all the surveys carried out by Labour Back Benchers, we will find what proportion of their electorates want the pilots or whether a relatively small number of people have been expressing their views.
On amendment No. 8, we believe that it is vital that three quarters of all the local authorities that have individual returning officers, including acting returning officers, should agree to conduct pilots. That is a reasonable amount, and not a bare majority. The Electoral Commission talks throughout its report about the crucial importance of considering the views not of the regional returning officers, but of the local returning officers in each local authority area. It is those people whose views are most important. Unless at least three-quarters of local authorities support the pilot, as our amendment would require, it should not go ahead.
We shall hear in due course from the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, but I understand that the Liberal Democrats' amendment No. 1 is replaced by their amendment No. 6. Of those two alternative versions of new subsection (4A), Conservative Members prefer amendment No. 6, which is why we added our names to that amendment, but not to amendment No. 1.
John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman suggests that if more than half the returning officers in Scotland have said that they would like an all-postal ballot, there should be one. That is indeed what they have said.
John Robertson: But the Electoral Reform Society came out in favour of Scotland by saying that it should be a pilot area for the simple reason that it has only one election on that day. [Interruption.]
Mr. Hawkins: I hear the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome expressing doubt about that. I am sure that he will give us his views in a moment. The problem for the hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) is that the Electoral Commission, which is advising his party's Government, came out against Scotland, for good and compelling reasons.
Amendment No. 12 queries whether there is good reason for ruling out London as a possible pilot area. My hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) raised that matter in the Chamber previously, I touched on it in Committee, and we thought that it was worth debating again. We are not surprised by any ideas that the Government have about London elections, given the peculiar things that have been happening recently, with the Labour party ignoring its own rules and allowing back into membership someone who was thrown out for five years.
Amendment No. 13 suggests that we rule out Scotland or the north-east as pilot areas. I tabled it before I had seen the Electoral Commission's recommendations, and wondered subsequently whether I should take out the north-east, but decided not to do so. Conservative Members have always opposed having Scotland as a pilotnow, the Electoral Commission agreesand there are no advantages in having pilots in two regions that border one another. For example, it may lead to confusion in relation to the media and political advertising. I found the Electoral Commission's assessment of that issue strange in one or two respects. Table 6 on page 15 of its report is headed, "Ease of organising discrete media opportunities in selected European Parliamentary regions". The hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland will be pleased to see that Scotland is at the top of the table in relation to radio and the regional press. The north-east is third in relation to radio and second in relation to regional pressI can see some logic in thatbut I had to query the whole basis of the analysis when I saw that Wales was down at the bottom in eighth place out of nine. Having spent a lot of time in different parts of the UK, it seems to me that Wales has a thriving and discrete regional press, and I cannot understand how it could possibly be described as having a less discrete regional press than the west midlands, the east midlands or the eastern area. That seemed bizarre and made me wonder whether one could believe the rest of the order given. Wales should certainly have been ahead of the west midlands, the east midlands and the eastern area.
Mr. Tom Harris: Does the hon. Gentleman genuinely believe that people living in the north of England do not know whether they live in Scotland or England? That would appear to be the only basis for confusion in a postal vote.
Mr. Hawkins: With respect, I think that the hon. Gentleman is accusing me of putting forward an over-simplified argument. It is not that people do not know whether they live in Scotland or England but that they will be confused about a European election in which people will use one voting method on one side of the border and another method on the other. I am not the only one expressing these concerns; the Electoral Commission has talked about the dangers of people being confused if the media cross borders and there are different methods of voting.
Mr. Watts: In Merseyside, we had a pilot scheme in St. Helens. It did not confuse the voters in Knowsley or Wirral, who were capable of making their own decisions about how and when to vote. If there was no confusion there, why should there be confusion in other areas?
Mr. Hawkins: I refer the hon. Gentleman to the Electoral Commission's concerns. In a small postal pilot that is heavily advertised in one part of Merseyside such as St. Helens, it is possible to say to the electorate, "This is something new and different", but to hold a regional pilot in a European election with the media broadcasting across regional boundaries will cause problems. It is not just me who says sothe Electoral Commission believes that, too.
Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): I support my hon. Friend's argument by mentioning Berwick-upon-Tweed, which is a classic example of a large community situated right on the border. Its football team plays in the Scottish league, and it receives media broadcasts from both sides of the border. It would be deeply confusing to receive different messages.
John Robertson: The Electoral Commission talks about the areas that it considers should be chosen and describes in detail those that should be chosen, in order of merit, if the first two are not chosen. Of course, Scotland heads that group. One might think that,
All returning officers have always complained about resources at every election, but it should be understood that resources will be available in the pilot areas. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister not to exclude Scotland, which meets all the criteria kindly supplied by the Opposition. Consideration should be given to areas where only one election is happening.
Much was made of the fact that parts of Scotland are very rural and do not have postal deliveries every day. Surely it is not beyond the Post Office to organise more than one delivery each day, or even every other day, during an electionespecially given that only one political party seems to want to enfranchise people. The English nationalists, known as the Tories, and the Scottish nationalists, known as the tartan Toriesalong with their friends the Liberal Democratsseem to want to ensure that we do not get a proper turnout. Why is that? Why should we not want people to go out and vote? Why should we want to put obstacles in their way? It was said on Second Reading that an increase of between 10 and 12 per cent. in the voting figures resulted from voting by postal ballot.