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Pete Wishart (North Tayside): I must put the hon. Gentleman right, as he clearly did not follow what I said in Committee. I too want Scotland to be an all-postal voting pilot area, and was surprised and disappointed to find that the commission had excluded it, but surely he appreciates the commission's concerns. It is a question not just of resources but of a lack of experience. There have been only three pilot local government postal ballots in Scotland.
John Robertson: I apologise. The hon. Gentleman agreed with us that Scotland should have a postal ballot. However, I do not agree that lack of experience should prevent people from doing something. The Electoral Commission makes that point in its report. After all, how are people to gain experience? Should they decide not to do something because it sounds like a bad idea?
John Robertson: I am sorry, but I believe that Scotland more than fulfils the criteria, especially those identified by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath. If my hon. Friend the Minister has not made a decision, or if he is swivelling in any particular direction, I ask him to consider Scotland. It is an important part of the United Kingdom, and it is important for the Scottish people, like those in every other area, to be given the chance of a pilot.
The amendments deal with recommendations on which pilot regions should be chosen and for what reasons. I think that my amendments Nos. 1 and 6 go to the heart of the issuealthough I would say that, wouldn't I?and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) for supporting amendment No. 6. As he correctly surmised, it was tabled after the publication of the commission's report, whereas amendment No. 1 was tabled before it. Amendment No. 6 proposes the inclusion of the commission's recommendations in the Bill. I should tell Members on both sides of the House that in this matter, the commission is the one firm rock on which we should depend. Whether or not we like what it says, it should not be for politicians, with their own interests at heart, to seek to persuade the Minister to overrule the commission.
In considering the previous group of amendments, I said that there were two tests that the Minister had to pass this afternoon. He has passed one by withdrawing the electronic voting provision, and I have some confidence that he will pass the other one as well. However, it remains to be seen whether he will accept the commission's advice.
Mr. Watts: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the prospect of half the voters in St. Helens not voting in the forthcoming European and local elections should outweigh any practical problems that may occur with the introduction of all-postal ballots? Frankly, I am amazed that people who supposedly support the democratic system want to deprive my voters of the opportunity to cast their vote in the way they want, which is the most effective way.
Mr. Heath: I cannot understand what the hon. Gentleman is talking about. No one is deprived of such a voteevery single elector in his constituency, if they wish to do so, can vote by a postal ballot. [Interruption.] He says that they will not, but why not? They have the opportunity to do so. It is not a question of depriving people of a vote. If that is what he really believes, he should not support the Bill. Instead, he should introduce a private Member's Bill that would establish all-postal ballots on all occasions in all areas at all times. That is the only logical conclusion. [Interruption.] He is nodding, so that must be what he wants. I am sorry, but the Minister will be disappointed, because he has lost one of his supporters. The hon. Gentleman wants a conclusion that is quite different from that which the Minister is offering in the Bill.
Mr. Heath: I am sorry to disabuse the hon. Gentleman, but the commission has set down clear criteria that it has followed to their logical conclusion, and it has made recommendations accordingly. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson) believes that Scotland should be included irrespective of what is said. In an intervention on the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), he said that the commission had clearly supported the inclusion of Scotland. I do not know which part of the commission's conclusion that it feels unable to recommend that Scotland is suitable to undertake a pilot scheme in 2004 he does not understand, but in the circumstances that seems pretty explicit to me.
Mr. Heath: In that case, I accept the hon. Gentleman's clarification and I apologise for misquoting him; I did indeed mishear him. In fact, the commission came up with not one but 10 different reasons why Scotland should not be included at this stage. I shall not take a subjective view as to whether Scotland should be included. In fact, as the hon. Member for Surrey Heath will perhaps recall, I criticised him in Committee for wanting to exclude Scotland from the Bill, which he still wishes to do so. One of his amendments would have excluded Scotland on the ground that it has universities and rural areas, and that those are debarring factors. He was wrong to try to exclude Scotland from consideration.
The Electoral Commission has been given a job to do and it has done it. It has produced a recommendation that I did not anticipate. In its view, just two electoral regions are appropriate for pilots this year: the north-east and the east midlands.
Angela Watkinson: Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that the only thing preventing the electorate of St. Helen's, North from voting is the individual electors who choose not to vote? There is nothing impeding them from voting either through the ballot box or by availing themselves of the opportunity to use postal votes, which are available to anyone for various reasons. The electors take a political decision, for whatever reason, not to vote.
Mr. Heath: I wish it was in every constituency, but I am afraid that that is not the case. It is only in the marginal constituencies where people feel their votes make a difference. We should, of course, encourage voting by whatever method, but I am not sure that the argument of the hon. Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Watts) is realistic.
Joyce Quin: The hon. Gentleman mentioned percentages of 30 and 40 per cent., but I must point out that in local elections in my area, the vote increased to 60 per cent. in non-marginal wards. That represents a huge difference.
Mr. Heath: The right hon. Lady is right that local pilots for postal ballots are worth having. As I explained on Second Reading, a pilot scheme in my area brought about similar results in the local elections
Mr. Heath: May I deal with the first intervention first? The postal voting went up considerably in my area, but the same effect was not reflected in electronic voting. I have never tried to argue that there is no case for postal voting. I argue quite differently in respect of European elections, as I am sure the right hon. Lady would accept.
Mr. Hawkins: Although the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) talks about a good experience in her constituency, the hon. Gentleman will remember that we debated in Committee the implications of a controversial by-election in the London borough of Lewisham where the seat changed hands. The turnout hardly increased at all, so not all the evidence goes the same way. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is concerned, as I am, that the enthusiasm for one postal pilot might quickly wane and be followed by the lower turnouts that are often seen in local government elections.