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Mr. Watts: Government Members who support postal voting do so for factual reasons. They know that postal voting increases turnout. If postal voting increases turnout, it makes the system more democratic. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that anything that increases turnout must be good for democracy?
Mr. Forth: I do not agree. That is an assumption that everybody makes and it is regarded as unchallengeable, but I am challenging it. A simple increase in turnout does not increase the quality of the democratic process. If pushed, I could almost suggest the opposite: the quality of the vote cast in the traditional way is possibly higher than one cast in an easier voting process. I do not accept the assumption.
Mr. Forth: No, I do not. Our traditional method has stood the test of time extremely well. It combines a degree of confidentialityfor example, we touched earlier on the risk of intimidation in the postal voting systemwith a little degree of effort, which is in itself a very good thing. At its best, it provides a degree of integrity in the voting process that we should all welcome.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The right hon. Gentleman understands the procedures of the House very well and I am reluctant to stop him. However, he will appreciate that he must not get into a Second Reading debate. The amendments are reasonably precise.
Mr. Forth: I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I should not have allowed myself to be led down those paths, but you know how enthusiastic I am to try to help Members when they want to challenge my assertions. I will draw my remarks to a conclusion.
Those are the reasons why I will not follow those who want slavishly to follow the commission, why I support the original wording of the Bill and why, on this occasion, I sadly cannot support the amendment moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath, which seeks to draw London back into the morass.
Mr. Tom Harris : The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) made two comments in his contribution that I would like to refer to. He made the accusation once again that Government Members hope to pilot all-postal voting schemes for party political advantage. I said this in Committee, I shall say it again now and I am sure that I reflect my hon. Friends' views: we believe that a net increase in participation in the
The hon. Gentleman made what was almost a throwaway remark as he finished his speech by saying that he disagreed with one of the Electoral Commission's recommendationsI cannot remember his exact words, but I am sure that he can check them in Hansardbut he contradicted his own argument. I totally agree with what the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said about the Electoral Commission. The commission makes recommendations; it does not pass down edicts from on high. We are the elected representatives of the people of this country and we are in the democratic Chamber in which decisions are taken on whether to instigate pilots for 100 per cent. postal voting or any other matter. The Electoral Commission provides advice but it does not tell the House what to do.
In Committee, I pointed out to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome that although the Electoral Commission's criteria were important, many were subjective and could not be assessed simply through a tick-box exercise. There will sometimes be a question of judgment when deciding whether criteria have been met, so the Electoral Commission cannot be allowed to have the final say on such matters. We have a Minister and elected Members of Parliament so that we may take the advice that the Electoral Commission is paid to provide and base our judgments on that.
I do not have an especially dogmatic view on whether Scotland should be a pilot area, although I hope that it will be. If evidence were to show that Scotland's political process would not benefit from all-postal ballots, I would accept the Government's view. I shall press the case for a pilot in Scotland because I believe that Scotland meets the necessary criteria, but I shall not take a dogmatic approach. We all have our constituency and regional interestsI am no differentbut I accept that arguments must be made for selecting specific areas. The arguments for Scotland have already been made, but I am prepared to listen to opposite views.
The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) admitted that the drafting of amendment No. 8 leaves something to be desired. He mentioned chief executives rather than local authorities several times in his speech, although the amendment makes reference to local authorities. It is one thing to accept the view of a chief executive who has professional experience and judgment and is appointed as an objective and apolitical member of staff by the political establishmenta local authoritybut a chief executive's view is in no way equivalent to that of a local authority. A local authority may adopt a view at a meeting of a full council after the ruling Labour, Conservative or Liberal group has met in caucus to decide the view to take forward to the council meeting. A chief executive's view, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned on several occasions, is the personal opinion of a senior council official, so the view
Mr. Hawkins: It is conventional that a chief executive is the returning officer or acting returning officer for many elections, although I accept that that is not the case in all local authorities. Many local authorities also have electoral officers, but the person who performs the role of returning officer or acting returning officer is frequently the chief executiveI assume that the situation in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and other parts of Scotland is the same as that in England. The amendment refers to local authorities, but if he examines the Electoral Commission's report, he will find that it refers to local returning officers, who may or may not be chief executives.
Mr. Harris: I accept that explanation, but the hon. Gentleman is a lawyer and has been a Member of the House for longer than me, so he knows that we must be specific when drafting legislation rather than assuming that those who will interpret a law in many years' time will refer back to an Electoral Commission report.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath for once again entertaining us with his views on Scotland. He made the highly entertaining argument in Committee that Scotland should not be chosen as a pilot area because it has lots of students and farmland. He was challenged to name a region apart from London that did not have rural areas and was unable to do so. His latest argument is not only that Scotland should be excluded from a pilot area, but that any bit of land that touches Scotland should not be used as a pilot area. I want to take offence, but he has been so generous and courteous to me that I am sure his comments are in no way anti-Scottish.
The hon. Gentleman's idea is remarkable. Is voter confusion really so prevalent in those parts of England that border Scotland? I am happy to give way to him if he can tell me how many voters in Carlisle thought they had a vote in the Scottish Parliament elections in May this year, because that is what he is arguing. I can imagine the scene. Someone in Carlisle is watching Border television news and hears the announcement that a postal ballot is to be held in Scotland, so he says to his wife, "We must have a vote then", while she argues, "No, we live in England." The hon. Gentleman's new argument is up there with the idea that we should not give Scots a postal ballot because there are too many students in Scotland.
I am disappointed that the Electoral Commission decided that Scotland was not eligible or should not be chosen as a pilot area for an all-postal vote. I like to think that the Government and my hon. Friend the Minister will give the Electoral Commission's proposals the serious consideration they deserve, but that they will, at the end of the day, make a judgment that is worthy of the House and the Government.
I chide the hon. Gentleman for being nit-picking about amendment No. 8. Although it may not be 100 per cent. technically, I can let him into a little secret. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) will not mind if I reveal that we will probably not win when we press the amendment to a vote. The purpose of the amendment is to have a serious debate on the views of local authorities. That is important. I hope that the Minister will help me with that when he responds.
One problem that local authorities face in the north-east, which will be a pilot area, is the cost of the operation. My district council of Tynedale and others in the region are small rural district councils. We do not have the staff or the ability to have the large-scale mailing that is required for the postal ballot. They will have to employ mailing houses, if that is possible bearing in mind the security implications, to do the job for them, which will be costly. We will not know about that in detail until the Electoral Commission pronounces on it, but the issue is important for local council tax payers in the north-east.
I support my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) in what he said about the Electoral Commission. We set up such bodies, but all the Electoral Commission has done is bombard us with a huge number of expensively produced documents, which have made elections more complicated. What it is trying to do, and what it may succeed in doing, is to take the politics out of elections. People do not turn out to vote because they are turned off by politics and politicians. If we want people to vote in larger numbers, and we do, we have to make elections interesting.
I represent the only Conservative constituency in the north-east. The Labour party in the north-east thought that it should be a target and drafted everyone in. Ministers, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) and the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) had to dress up in red shirts and sit cross legged on a muddy pitch with the Deputy Prime Minister. The Labour party thought that it had a chance of getting my scalp. As you see, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it did not and I remain a Member of this place. The turnout in my constituency was the second highest in England, being more than 70 per cent. Other turnouts in the north-east were down to slightly more than 50 per cent. In Glasgow, it was less than 50 per cent. People will vote when there is a reason. They will go to the polling station if politics is made interesting.