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5.15 pm

My criticism of the postal voting system and of what the Electoral Commission is doing is that politics will be made more boring. In the north-east, we will have a job to stimulate interest in the European elections. The difficulty for the people of the north-east is that our campaign will be completely out of step with that of the national campaign. As the national campaign reaches a crescendo a day or two before polling day, our votes in the north-east will have been cast. People will receive

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their voting slips—I do not know when the Electoral Commission will rule on this—about 10 days, a fortnight, or three weeks before the election. They may decide to vote there and then, or they may decide to put the slip in the bin there and then. Later, as the national campaign starts, with television coverage, for example, they will start to become interested. They may then discover that they voted for the wrong party or that they threw their ballot paper away.

We shall have a lacklustre campaign because it will have no national backing. It will be an entirely local campaign. That may be satisfactory in local government elections but, while postal voting may encourage turnout, if our campaign in the north-east is not as exciting as the national campaign, that will discourage voting. I suspect that the net result will be little gain for the north-east of England.

I ask the Minister to ensure that proper assistance is given to local authorities, which will face difficulties. Will he please arrange, if possible, that individual voters can deliver their votes at the last minute rather than have to put them in the post several days in advance? That is the only thing that will give some of them an opportunity to see the national campaign come to a conclusion before they make up their minds for which party they should vote.

Mr. Leslie: We have had a useful and thorough debate on the selection of regions. Before I address each amendment in turn relating to the selection of regions for elections pilots, I shall set out the Government's intentions, having now received the advice that we requested from the Electoral Commission.

The Electoral Commission was asked to recommend up to three regions or nations that might be able to pilot all-postal voting, and which of those regions would be most suitable to include an e-enabled element. It published its recommendations on 8 December, concluding that the north-east is most suitable, followed by the east midlands. The commission then ranked a number of other regions

but for which it felt unable to make a positive recommendation. Those regions, ranked in order of potential suitability, are Scotland, Yorkshire and the Humber, the north-west and the west midlands. The commission concluded that the remaining regions are not suitable for a pilot in time for the June 2004 elections. Moreover, it recommended that the Government do not include an e-enabled element in any of the pilot schemes. The Government are immensely grateful to the commission for conducting such a thorough and sophisticated study on that issue, ranking the regions against the criteria.

I mentioned earlier in the debate our acceptance of the commission's recommendation not to proceed with any electronic voting on a regional scale in the June 2004 elections. We remain keen, however, to proceed with all-postal voting in three regions. In scaling up towards a multi-channel general election after 2006, we believe that pressing ahead with a wider range and variation of piloting provides the best opportunity to learn lessons and to develop capabilities in new electoral techniques. I

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can therefore announce that we intend to pilot all-postal voting in the north-east and the east midlands, and that we are also minded to proceed with all-postal voting in a third region or nation.

The commission has been helpful in saying that

The Government will consider in more detail each of the potential candidates with a view to announcing the location of the third all-postal pilot in the coming weeks. There are good grounds for further consideration of several suitable regions, and it is right not to rush into a decision on the third pilot, given the advice from the Electoral Commission. For example, although Scotland is well placed as a location for a pilot because it has no local elections, returning officers voiced reservations that require consideration. We therefore intend to discuss the issues raised by the Scottish returning officers with them over the coming weeks to see if their concerns can be ameliorated and any difficulties ironed out.

The Electoral Commission also took into consideration the preferences of returning officers in different parts of regions such as Yorkshire and the Humber and the north-west. Further scrutiny by my Department of those issues will now take place, so that we can conclude which third all-postal voting pilot will proceed. The Electoral Commission regards that as consistent with its report and recommendations. All-postal voting in the north-east, east midlands and a third region or nation will not only improve the turnout in those areas but give voters a more convenient method of expressing their democratic choice in the June elections. The Electoral Commission will report on the lessons learned from those pilots, so that in future those new opportunities can be rolled out on a wider scale.

Joyce Quin: I warmly welcome what my hon. Friend said about the north-east. A strong case was made on the basis of the numerous pilots that have already taken place in the region, and there will be a warm welcome for what he has said in regard to my local districts of Sunderland and Gateshead.

Mr. Leslie: I welcome my right hon. Friend's comments. She has campaigned hard for the north-east, and I am glad that we have been able to make that decision, subject to the legislation. She has been vociferously keen for that decision to be made.

John Robertson: I thank my hon. Friend for not excluding Scotland, but can he assure me that all 32 returning officers in Scotland will be approached and asked about its suitability for a postal ballot, rather than the decision being left to one person?

Mr. Leslie: As I said earlier, it is right to investigate further the findings and advice of the Electoral Commission about Scotland. It ranked Scotland highly as a suitable candidate, but was unable to make a positive recommendation. However, we want to have three pilots and, over the coming weeks, we shall seek the views of returning officers to see whether there is a substantive case for their nation or region, whether there are obstacles, and whether those problems are surmountable.

Pete Wishart: The Minister cannot leave us hanging like this. Will he tell us which other electoral areas he is

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considering, and can he confirm that Scotland is now back in the frame as a pilot for all-postal voting? What is the time scale, as elections are now only a few months away? How quickly will we find out who will be next?

Mr. Forth: Soon.

Mr. Leslie: As the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said, we hope to conclude soon which region or nation will be the third choice for our pilots. The decision has to be made relatively swiftly over the coming weeks, as I said. The Electoral Commission set out in its report which regions and nations are suitable, and we are proceeding in line with the nature and architecture of its advice, which is the right and proper way to proceed.

Mr. Hawkins: The Minister obviously feels under pressure from the large number of Labour Back Benchers representing Scottish constituencies, but when he and his colleagues are considering their decision, will they bear in mind the fact that the Electoral Commission, a creature of his Government, said that the regional returning officer for Scotland has informed it that there is insufficient time available to put in place the necessary mechanisms to deliver an all-postal pilot in Scotland with any reasonable guarantee of success? We will strongly oppose any suggestion by the Government that Scotland would be appropriate, as it would fly in the face of that rejection by the regional returning officer.

Mr. Leslie: I hope the hon. Gentleman will refrain from becoming too rhetorical on the matter. As I said, it is necessary now to investigate the views of the returning officers more thoroughly, as the Electoral Commission suggested in the report. May I correct a mistake that the hon. Gentleman made? It is not my Electoral Commission or the Government's Electoral Commission. The Electoral Commission is accountable to the House as a whole through the Speaker's Committee. I believe that it is widely respected and independent.

Mr. Miller: My hon. Friend has presented himself with a dilemma—a judgment of Solomon. When he makes his judgment, will he consider carefully the advice from the Electoral Commission about the success of pilots conducted in the north-west of England, and in particular the diversity of that region, which makes it ideally suited for conducting continued pilots?

Mr. Leslie: As I said, all-postal voting may be possible in a number of other regions. We are considering the matter further, so that we can conclude in a proper and reasonable manner which region or nation should be the third choice. The advice in respect of the north-west, as in respect of Yorkshire and the Humber and in respect of Scotland, is clear in the Electoral Commission report, which we will consider as a matter of urgency.

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