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6.11 pm

Mr. Hawkins: As my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) said on Second Reading, this is not a very good Bill. It is a bit of a mess. It started as a mess, and has been made worse by the Government's great surprise last week when they did not receive the response that they expected and wanted from the Electoral Commission. They did not receive the response they wanted on the number of regions; the commission recommended only two, not three. Indeed, the commission went further and said that there could be only one pilot region. On page 25 of its report of 8 December, the commission states:

Clearly, as we have been suggesting, the Government could end up with only one pilot region.

During the last substantive debate on amendments, the Minister gave the game away. As I said then, and as we feared when I wound up on Second Reading, it is clear that the fix will be put back. We expect that the Government will bow to the demands of all their Back Benchers who represent Scottish constituencies and announce that the region will be Scotland. If they do, they will be flying in the face of the Electoral

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Commission's recommendations. Not only has the regional returning officer said that he does not think that Scotland would be an appropriate place for a postal pilot—although the Minister chose to quote selectively from the commission's report—but the commission's conclusions are even more strongly against the idea.

Section 3.8 on page 26 of the report states:

that is all the returning officers—

That is the regional returning officer for Scotland setting out his objections on behalf of all 31 local returning officers.

I wanted to put those comments on record on behalf of my party because those present earlier who listened to the contributions of some Scottish Members—who, perhaps significantly, have not stayed for Third Reading—might have got the impression that local returning officers took a different view from the regional returning officer. It is made absolutely clear in the report of the Electoral Commission—which the Government set up—that the regional returning officer was writing on his behalf and on that of all 31 local returning officers. If the Government were to go ahead and soon or quickly—as the Minister variously put it—announce that Scotland was suitable, they would be flying in the face of all those detailed objections. I do not overstate the case by saying that the Opposition would regard that as a constitutional outrage and a recipe for disaster.

The Electoral Commission therefore concludes, in the light of all those factors, that those issues remain unresolved and must be addressed before any decision to designate Scotland a pilot region. We are talking about elections in June 2004, so there is no way that all those serious concerns could possibly be addressed in time.

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Mr. Leslie indicated dissent.

Mr. Hawkins: If the Minister thinks otherwise, I would be interested to hear shortly how that can be done. If he wants to set out how he would answer all those detailed bullet points, I will take an intervention.

Mr. Leslie: I understand the hon. Gentleman's excitement but surely it is worth looking into the points raised by the returning officers further to see whether they can be overcome. Is that not reasonable?

Mr. Hawkins: No, because the Government set up the Electoral Commission. I agree respectfully with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said about commissions and I will say more in a moment. If the commission does not give the answer that the Government want and expect, they seek to undermine it and go back on its recommendations. We are talking about an election in only six months' time. The Electoral Commission, all the returning officers and the regional returning officer say clearly that these matters cannot be dealt with in time, and they say it, if I may say so, in spades.

The Minister conceded finally that everything that Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members said about e-voting in Committee and on Second Reading was correct. The Electoral Commission has supported us, and the Government have had to abandon their previous obsession with so-called e-voting. Unfortunately, they have not abandoned their other obsession with so-called modernisation. Today, the Minister added a further abuse of the English language with what he described as a multi-channel general election after 2006. I do not know what that neologism is supposed to mean. Whatever it is, I suspect that Conservative Members will dislike it intensely. I am getting almost to the stage at which when I hear a Minister—he is one of the worst offenders—trot out yet again their dreary mantra of modernisation I want to reach for a revolver or a sick bag.

Mr. Forth: Perhaps the Minister had in mind reality elections, in which all the candidates go into some horrible room, and people are invited to telephone in and throw them out one by one.

Mr. Hawkins: That reminds me of the old-fashioned balloon debate in a university or school debating society, in which people would vote to decide who should be thrown out. We know that every time the Prime Minister has a reshuffle he indulges in a political version of the balloon debate in deciding who has been slavishly loyal enough to stay in the Government's balloon and who must be thrown out. It is the same with modernisation as with some of the Government's other obsessive buzzwords such as "sustainability". The Government believe that anything that is old must be bad. Conservatives, however, believe in our parliamentary and electoral traditions. We say that the reason that they are old and have survived is that they work—they are tried, tested and true. We strongly agree with the basis of the Electoral Reform Society's concerns about the Bill, which they have repeated before Third Reading to assist all hon. Members. It clearly has great concerns about issues such as the misuse of postal

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ballots in houses in multiple occupation and student halls of residence, and even cases in which the head of a household could purport to vote on behalf of everybody in that household.

I hope that the my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst will acquit me of what he called nauseating sycophancy towards the Electoral Commission, because I strongly agree with him that the Government keep setting up such commissions, which is a recipe for constant flux. Once there is a commission, it will always make recommendations and it will always want to change things. It would be far better if we said that the reason why our electoral traditions have survived is because they work.

On Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Member for Stone made several important points, which I shall touch on because they are equally relevant to Third Reading. The Opposition believe that the decline in turnout for European elections, which the Government are concerned about, is at least partly because of the introduction of the party list system under the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999, which abolished first-past-the-post voting in European elections.

In our view, the decline is also because of the centralising, remote and bureaucratic process of further and deeper European integration. Perhaps the fact that last weekend's European Commission summit to try to draw up a new European constitution collapsed is a welcome sign that the European position is now collapsing under the weight of its own inadequacies and internal inconsistencies. There is certainly the problem that issues to do with further European integration will undermine trust and respect in the political system, and a referendum on any future constitution that may emerge from any future summit will be absolutely essential. We believe that we should return to first-past-the-post voting in European elections. If that were the Government's proposal today, instead of all the nonsense in the Bill, it would increase turnout in European elections, which the Government say is the object of the exercise.

When my hon. Friend the Member for Stone spoke on Second Reading, he drew attention to the fact that the European Scrutiny Committee—which has a Labour majority and is a chaired by a Labour Member, the hon. Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood)—urged the House to reintroduce first-past-the-post voting for European elections. We sought to introduce such a proposal in Committee. First past the post is the only system that maintains the immediate link between a representative and his or her constituency. That is particularly important now that we have these enormous, so-called European regions, which may have up to 6 million voters.

The evidence on all-postal voting is mixed. In some areas, it has undoubtedly increased turnout, which is why we have not, as a party, opposed all the Government's proposals for all-postal voting. When examining the Bill, it is right to point out that the evidence is contradictory. In the Hackney all-postal pilot, turnout actually fell by 3 per cent., and in

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Greenwich it dropped by 0.4 per cent. Some of the postal pilots have not worked well even to increase turnout, which the Government say that they want to do.

Our concerns about fraud and the dangers of personation remain. As the Electoral Reform Society has said, the chances of large-scale fraud are now back with us for the first time in 130 years—for the first time since the ballot reforms in 1872, there is serious concern about large-scale fraud. If the Government had not dropped their e-voting pilot plans this afternoon, we would be even more concerned that there would be large-scale attempts to distort a ballot by hacking into insecure computer systems. I am glad that the Government have belatedly listened to us and the Liberal Democrats and dropped those proposals.

Many senior police officers—some of whom I have spoken to—including Detective Chief Superintendent Dave Churchill, the head of West Midlands police major fraud unit, remain concerned that postal voting systems have too few major checks or controls to ensure that the true identity of the voter can be relied upon. The Bill contains too little protection for the security of the ballot, which is why we tabled amendments to provide for greater protection.

The security of the postal system gives rise to several questions and it might be relevant to mention the strange saga on which I briefly touched earlier. Although I have received hard copies of most Electoral Commission documents in good time by post, there was one that I did not receive, so I had to get it from the helpful people in the Library. Perhaps I did not receive it because of the pressures on the Christmas post, but if even a shadow Minister cannot get a hard copy of a relevant document in time for a debate, despite the fact that it was issued a week before, how can we be certain that the postal system will be able to run an effective all-postal ballot in an area as large as a European constituency?

My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) expressed worry about potential problems in rural parts of north-east England such as his constituency. If the north-east is selected for all-postal pilots—the Government are likely to accept the Electoral Commission's recommendations on that—the area might be out of synchronisation with the rest of the national campaign. Problems such as the way in which the media will cover the election are set out in the commission's report and despite the fact that the north-east and midlands have been recommended for pilots, it does not say that all the problems have been solved.

I agree with the worries expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member Bromley and Chislehurst and my hon. Friends the Members for Hexham and for Upminster (Angela Watkinson). There should be more delivery points in the postal system. Given that the Bill will impose all-postal pilots on local authorities that might not wish to participate, it is important for there to be delivery points in each local government ward so that people who wish to vote by post will be able to drop off their ballot envelopes by hand in a secure location that is convenient for them. There is a danger that there might be strike action by Post Office workers, which has happened throughout the country in recent months and years, so there are genuine worries about the reliability

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of the postal service. Indeed, militant unions could regard the fact that an election depended on the postal service as a good excuse to try to blackmail the Government of the day, which would cause a real problem.

We are also worried that, according to Postwatch, figures that were issued at the end of January 2001, an average of 1,500 items of mail are lost every week across every parliamentary constituency. I received a letter in the post only today from a constituent with whom I correspond regularly. She said that she wrote to me during the last postal dispute in London, but I have not received her letter. That situation confirms the examples that my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster cited earlier.

We did not have time to discuss amendment No. 26 because of the earlier Divisions. Conservative Members believe that the Government should make it clear that local authorities will be fully funded for all the costs of all-postal elections. Many small local authorities, such as those in my area and Tynedale council, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham, are in danger of being left seriously out of pocket because the Government keep loading more obligations on such authorities without providing the funds to pay for them.

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