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Dr. Pugh: Is the premise of the hon. Gentleman's argument that we, as politically motivated individuals, can better apply the criteria developed by the Electoral Commission than it can itself?

Mr. Turner: Yes. This is no deus ex machina giving judgments on tablets of stone. We can surely make

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criticisms of the commission. Its judgments may be incorrect—as may those of the House—although that may be more likely in the case of the commission, as it may be less aware of the political situation.

Pete Wishart: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we should have an electoral commission on the Electoral Commission to ensure that it acts properly according to his good judgment. If we take the route that he suggests, what is the point of the Electoral Commission?

Mr. Turner: No, I do not want an electoral commission on the Electoral Commission, because Parliament should make the judgments. The commission gives us advice but we make the judgments. Parliament decides those issues.

John Robertson: It would appear that my hon. Friend's region is similar to mine, as in my region, too, only the people at the top were consulted and not the electoral returning officers for the whole area. Does he agree that in his area, as in mine, a vast majority of them are in favour of postal ballots?

Mr. Turner: I shall develop that argument later, if my hon. Friend will permit me, although I do want to talk about Scotland now. It is only fair that if we make judgments, based on the evidence of the Electoral Commission, about one region, we should make judgments about all of them.

In Scotland there are 32 unitary authorities that have weighty electoral experience, so that is a strong reason for holding a pilot, yet no local elections will be held there. Some people might think that is a good thing, but I do not. Our learning experience will be limited if mixed elections are not held. The commission found that only a few by-elections had been held in Scotland, so experience of the pilot systems was very limited. The score on media, however, was excellent. Scotland was at the top of the list.

To return to the point made on several occasions by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Anniesland (John Robertson), a letter purportedly from the electoral returning officers in all 32 authorities states that they do not want the proposed system, yet he seems to have evidence that a substantial majority want it. Again, that raises questions about the judgment of the Electoral Commission and gives us a good reason to question its recommendations.

In Yorkshire and the Humber, the commission found that there was a reasonably large number and type of local authorities and elections, including whole-council metropolitan elections, so we shall learn a substantial amount from that region. However, there was limited experience of pilot systems in elections, only half the number that have been held in the north-west. On the media, the area comes fifth for radio and seventh for the press. On electoral returning officers, the commission noted in recommendation 2.117 that


Electoral returning officers in Yorkshire and the Humber do not want the proposed system.

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In the north-west, there is a wide variation in the number and type of authority. Various elections, including whole-council elections for the metropolitan authorities, take place at the same time. Experience of running pilots was second only to the north-east. On media, the region was fourth for radio and third for the press. The electoral returning officers have made a good case for going ahead with the proposals.

We have to balance the risks relating to the number of elections with the enthusiasm of the returning officers. They are the people who will ensure that the election is properly carried out, and if they are enthusiastic, the risk of having whole-council elections at the same time in metropolitan authorities will be substantially reduced. We need to take that point on board.

I am extremely disappointed that the Electoral Commission has come to conclusions that its evidence does not merit. Earlier in the debate, the Minister said that it was for him to make decisions on advice from the commission. To paraphrase my hon. Friend's words, he said that we are not giving the commission the right to make decisions and that that is the right of Parliament and of the Government. I hope that he will consider that point.

Mr. Miller: Is it not the case that the commission acknowledges that the north-west has conducted a wide range of pilots? There is no criticism whatever in the report of the conduct of those pilots. The criticism levelled by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) has nothing to do with the process that we are currently debating.

Mr. Turner: My hon. Friend makes a valid point.

I want to wind up with one last point. Members from the north-west gave good reasons on Second Reading as to why their's should be one of the regions chosen. We talked about its diversity in terms of geography, economics, finances, social range and rural and urban areas. That argument could also be made for both the north-east and Scotland. If the regions are judged against the Electoral Commission's criteria—apart from the fact that those criteria do not include learning—then I hope that the Minister will reject the east midlands and come to his own conclusions on the basis of merit, rather than following the flawed conclusions of the Electoral Commission.

Mr. Forth: I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner), because he is the first contributor to today's debate who has not displayed nauseating sycophancy towards the commission, as everybody else seems to feel obliged to do.

I am one of those old-fashioned people—hon. Members will be astonished to hear—who is suspicious of the proliferation of commissions. We get ourselves into the most awful difficulty when we set up these bodies, appoint to them people who are sometimes great and good and more often than not who are neither, get from them a self-justifying flow of recommendations, most of which are probably unnecessary but are produced by commissions to justify their existence, and are put in the invidious position of having to respond to them. The hon. Member for Wigan has put his finger on the dilemma.

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I do not accept the argument put in some of the amendments that have been tabled that if we set up the commission and it comes forward with recommendations, we must accept them, because the people on the commission are wonderful, splendid, impartial and knowledgeable, and since we are politicians we cannot make a judgment on matters political. That seems to be the thrust of some of the arguments that I have heard this afternoon. My preference would be to get rid of all these dreadful institutions and to take responsibility to ourselves, as we used to do in the good old days—to use the parliamentary process and the governmental process to consider and produce options, to make decisions and to stand by them. The electorate will judge our decisions—those of them who take the trouble to turn out, a problem to which I will refer in a moment.

As part of today's debate, I hope that some of us will think about whether we want these commissions in our lives. They are bureaucracies, they are appointed by politicians, they then make trouble for politicians, and I doubt very much whether they carry forward the quality of life or the quality of politics in our society today. For that reason, I do not feel obliged in any way to accept what this or that commission has recommended, and I follow the hon. Member for Wigan happily in saying that we should be robust enough, as should the Minister—knowing him as I think I do, he will be—to make our governmental, parliamentary decision, stand by it and be judged by it.

My other point is that, sadly, I cannot agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) in his attempt to draw London back into this ghastly process. I was happy when I saw in the Bill that London was to be excluded. The voters of London are perfectly capable of making their own decision, with the existing provisions, as to whether they want to vote. It is not unreasonable to ask someone to go to their nearest polling station and to make their choice, in the traditional way, on a ballot paper. That is not an obstacle put in the way of their voting. In fact, it is patronising to suggest that voters are now so dumb, idle or venal that they cannot be bothered to stir themselves to vote in a polling station on a ballot paper. The arguments involved with this Bill come close to making the patronising accusation against our voters that they are incapable of voting in the traditional way. My view is that voters are perfectly capable of making the judgment and the effort— small that it is—to exert the privilege of casting a vote.

5 pm

The issue is important for millions, perhaps billions, of people around the world, many of whom have given their lives for the chance to vote. In this country, we are complacently saying that our citizenry cannot even bestir themselves to walk a few hundred yards down the road to a polling station to cast a vote in a ballot. If that is our judgment, what on earth are we saying about our voters? The business about "Can't we give it to them on a plate? Can't we almost bribe them? Can't we make it so easy for them that they might almost do it by accident?" strikes me as patronising in the extreme.

I am glad that the Bill excludes London from the pilots. Proud as I am to represent a London constituency, I am confident that the voters of Bromley

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and Chislehurst, and indeed London as a whole, are perfectly capable of exerting their judgments, walking to the polling station and casting their votes. If Government Members are suggesting that their voters are so awful that they cannot even do that, they are not as in touch with their voters as they like to suggest.


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