Mr. Heath: I am also aware of the by-election where, as I recall, the Liberal Democrats won the seat from Labour. The hon. Gentleman is right that the turnout did not go up, so the experience is patchy, but that does not negate the value of the experiment. The argument is not about the concept of postal voting and its application in the pilot areas under previous enactments, but about its relevance to nationwide elections through its application in certain areas.
Let me say a few brief words about other amendments in the group. We have kept together quite well during the passage of the Bill so far, but I have to part company with the hon. Member for Surrey Heath on some of the amendments in the group. I hope that I do so in a spirit of good will, but we differ on some matters.
Amendment No. 8 is the lead amendment, on which we may divide the House. I have three criticisms. First, I am not sure that "a three-quarters majority" is clearly expressed. Secondly, I am concerned that the amendment mentions the majority of
Mr. Hawkins: The hon. Gentleman would be right if the amendment could be taken to mean every single local authority. I accept his criticism that, if there is a shortcoming in the drafting of the amendment, it is that. However, I made it clear when I spoke to the amendment that it refers to local authorities that have a returning officer. That is what the Electoral Commission reports talk about. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that that is what was clearly intended.
Mr. Heath: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Were we in Committee, I would accept his contention, but the Bill has reached Report stage, and will leave the House in the form that we determine now. We will return to this debate when we discuss amendment No.25, in a later group. In that amendment, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath proposes to remove the word "relevant" from clause 4, even though that word is used to identify local authorities with electoral responsibilities. There is therefore more than a technical problem with this amendment.
In addition, the proposed benchmark of 75 per cent. also gives me cause for concern. I note that the Electoral Commission reports the figure in the north-east as being 74 per cent. That may change as a result of the Minister's announcement today. We do not know when that temperature was taken, and we need to be more explicit than the amendment suggests.
For all those reasons, I cannot support the amendment. Like the Electoral Commission, however, I accept the principle that local authorities, and returning offices in particular, need to be consulted. They must be kept onside if the experiments are to work, and that is one of the criteria that has caused several potential pilot regions to be excluded.
Mr. Heath: Until the Minister speaks and tells us that he has confined himself to two, we cannot be certain. There is a real problem with the geographical proposition in the amendment, although I guess that it had a proper basis in the initial stages.
Mr. Heath: That is demonstrably true, time after time. Most importantly, people in Scotland will not vote for Conservative candidates on a first-past-the-post system. However, I think that there must be deeper reasons for the Conservative party's phobia about anything to do with the north. The phobia is not now confined to places north of the border; anywhere north of the Wash appears to be suspect in the eyes of the hon. Member for Surrey Heath. But let us set that aside for the moment.
In Committee, we debated the question of media areas, and whether it is possible to run discrete campaigns in areas that are not discrete. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath said that Wales was a discrete media area. However, people in parts of Somerset receive S4C, much to their upset, as they want to watch rugby being played in Bath rather than in Llanelli. In addition, there is also press intrusion in the north, as I believe that both the Liverpool Echo and the Liverpool Daily Post have high circulations in north Wales. So perhaps the Electoral Commission's assessment of the matter is not wrong.
The crucial point is that the Minister should pass the test of agreeing to the views of the Electoral Commission, without any outside pressure or noises off or anybody saying that he has to take a political view. His job as Minister, especially in his most prestigious Department, is to take an impartial and judicious view of what is proposed and to implement it in legislation. I am confident that he will do so by accepting amendment No. 6, on which I intend to divide the House if I have the opportunity and if the Minister gives me insufficient assurances.
Mr. Neil Turner: When the Electoral Commission consulted on this issuethe report is the result of that consultationit put forward nine criteria from the Government and five of its own which, it said, it had distilled into four. The first was the number and type of local authorities, the second was the number and type of local elections, the third was experiencewhich was thought to be important, but not essentialthe fourth was whether the media could conduct a discrete public information campaign, and the fifth was the enthusiasm of regional and local electoral returning officers. People might have some doubts about the efficacy of the recommendations of a commission that enumerates four criteria and enunciates five, but we should pass over that.
The Electoral Commission did not take into account, but should have done, the lessons learned from the pilot. The whole point of a pilot exercise is to learn lessons from it, so that one can decide whether they should be applied more generally. The lessons of the pilot should have been taken into account when determining the criteria.
Instead of taking the judgments of the Electoral Commission at face value, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) wants us to do, we should judge them against its own criteria. If we do that, it is clear that the north-east scores highly on almost all the criteria, and I would have no difficulty in making the north-east one of the pilot areas. However, the second recommendation is the east midlands and we should consider that more closely. The first criterion is the number of local authorities. The Electoral Commission says, in paragraph 2.119 of the report:
The second criterion is the number and type of elections, but the east midlands will have only six. We will not learn much if the pilots run in only six local authorities. The third criterion is experience, but only three out of the 40 local authorities have had experience in the past. On the fourth criterionthe ease with which local media could run a discrete information campaignthe east midlands comes seventh for radio and fifth for the regional press. On the fifth criterion, the regional electoral returning officer says that he does not want a pilot scheme. He is quoted as saying: