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Mr. Watts: If, at the end of my hon. Friend's consultations with the regions and after investigating the merits of each case, he comes to the conclusion that more than three regions could go ahead, why should not

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four or possibly five be selected? Will he reconsider the total number if the criteria are met by more than three regions?

Mr. Leslie: I understand the eagerness of many hon. Members for all-postal voting. The Electoral Commission recommended that eventually all local elections be all-postal. I am reluctant to move further than three regions or nations for all-postal ballots in the June 2004 elections, not just for practical administrative reasons, but for economic and budgetary reasons.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): I have caught most of the debate; I was not in the Chamber earlier. The Minister says that he is still considering Scotland. He asked the Electoral Commission to consider it. It said no. He told us that the Electoral Commission is independent, so will the decision be a political one?

Mr. Leslie: The hon. Gentleman should have been in the Chamber listening to the debate throughout, like other hon. Members. Let me quote from page 4 of the Electoral Commission's report. The commission advises—incidentally, it does advise, and Government and Parliament decide—

It is that middle group that we will scrutinise in more detail, along the lines recommended by the commission.

Mr. Tom Harris: My hon. Friend mentioned that the local authorities in Scotland will be consulted before a firm decision is made about a postal vote in Scotland. May I offer him some help and tell him that all my colleagues on the Government Benches from Scottish constituencies would be more than willing to contribute to that consultation, if he is looking for advice from the representatives? I am sure that Members of Parliament from the Opposition Benches, including the Scottish National party, which supports the measure, would also be willing to meet the Minister to persuade him of the right course. I am sure that that would apply to every Scottish Conservative Member of Parliament as well.

Mr. Leslie: I intend to make a decision relatively quickly on which third region or nation we wish to select. It is important that we have wide-ranging consultations, but I want to reach a decision relatively swiftly, and I hope that we will be able to make an announcement fairly quickly.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP) rose—

Mr. Heath rose—

Mr. Leslie: I wish to make further progress but, as the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) has not been present in the debate until recently, I shall give way to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome.

Mr. Heath: Given that the Minister said that he is effectively overruling the clear advice of the Electoral

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Commission, is he asking the Electoral Commission to apply the same criteria to this repechage, and if so, how does he suppose the commission will come to a different conclusion? If he is not asking it to apply different criteria, why does he not say now that he will admit Scotland irrespective of its advice, so that everyone knows where they are?

5.30 pm

Mr. Leslie: We are genuinely considering the matter along the lines of the process followed by the Electoral Commission, which has recommended that there should be three all-postal pilot regions. Given that framework, who would suggest that we should do anything but investigate further the other regions that the commission said were potentially suitable, although it could not make a positive recommendation about them? That is a reasonable and practical way forward, and I hope that the House will accept it.

Mr. Salmond: I think that the Minister is doing exactly the right thing—[Interruption.] Do not be surprised at my saying that. I feel a sense of bewilderment about why Scotland cannot technically proceed with a postal ballot if it meets many of the criteria. Is the postal service in Scotland so inadequate in comparison with postal services elsewhere that it could not deal with the ballot? I think that he is correct to examine the matter more fully and to satisfy himself. There is a lot of support for proceeding with Scotland as a pilot area if that is technically possible.

Mr. Leslie: The hon. Gentleman is right. It is perfectly possible that Scotland could have an all-postal pilot, as could a number of regions in England. It is important to look further into that matter along the lines suggested by the Electoral Commission, and that is precisely what I shall do in the coming weeks.

The amendments are similar to those tabled in Committee. I ask hon. Members to resist them, not least as they would jeopardise the proposal for all-postal voting in the north-east, the east midlands and a third region or nation. Amendment No. 8 would require three quarters of local authorities to consent to piloting. It would be wrong to pick an arbitrary threshold, as that would be convoluted and against the spirit of pressing forward with wider-scale piloting. It is true that the capacity and willingness of local authorities and returning officers are important, and we have considered those matters carefully. However, what is proposed is different from giving local authorities an effective veto over proceedings. It is in the national interest to scale up all-postal voting in order to improve access to democracy for the whole population. It would be inappropriate to allow local authorities to veto such plans.

The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) asked about funding. If we had had more time, I would have given an assurance that there would be no additional financial burdens on local authorities, as I did in Committee.

Amendments Nos. 1 and 6 would involve proceeding only where all the Electoral Commission criteria were fully satisfied. We have now indicated our interim

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decision, which is consistent with the advice given by the Electoral Commission, which indicated that it had no objection to our proposals for the north-east, the east midlands and a potential third area. Indeed, it provided its advice in ranked order to enable that precise way forward to be taken. The amendments are defective to the extent that they seem to regard the criteria as quasi-scientific, rather than as broader factors such as population and geographical size requiring consideration, which is how they must be considered.

In line with comments by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Harris), it would be wrong to alter the role of the Electoral Commission de facto by making it the decision maker rather than the adviser, as the amendments imply that it should be. It has given us advice, but it is for the Government to decide and to be accountable to Parliament for our decision.

Amendment No. 12 would allow pilots to occur in the region to be combined with Gibraltar—the Electoral Commission has recommended the south-west—and in London. As I said in Committee, there is added complexity in London because of the nature of the various local and mayoral electoral systems, which will require particular administrative effort in June. The south-west should not be eligible because of the special circumstances of any combination with Gibraltar, should that recommendation be adopted, given the new arrangements necessary for including voters from so far away. There has never before been integration of those electoral arrangements on such a scale. In any case, the Electoral Commission's separate consideration of the south-west indicated that that region is unsuitable for holding a pilot next year.

Amendments Nos. 13 and 14 would, strangely, exclude Scotland and anybody vaguely near it. No arguments of substance have been advanced in support of that ridiculous proposition. It would be perverse to penalise Scotland and its neighbouring regions by ruling them out and, particularly in the case of the north-east, it would go entirely against the recommendations of the Electoral Commission. We are reaching conclusions on the question of location. The recommendations of the Electoral Commission are important, and we are taking heed of its advice to work hard on identifying the third pilot area as soon as possible. I hope that the House will welcome the approach taken by the Government and reject the amendment.

Mr. Hawkins: I can be brief. The Minister has made it clear that, as we feared all along, the fix is going in. Despite the fact that the Electoral Commission did not recommend Scotland and that the regional returning officer said that it is clearly not ready, the Minister is foreshadowing his decision to bow to the strongly expressed views of Labour Back Benchers. Important issues are involved in our amendment No. 8 and Liberal Democrat amendment No. 6, to which my right hon. and hon. Friends and I have added our names. I suspect that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) will seek a separate Division on amendment No. 6. I seek to press amendment No. 8.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 135, Noes 357.

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