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Mr. Salmond: The hon. Gentleman is raising several perfectly reasonable concerns about the practicality of all-postal ballots, but the stuff about people being open to blackmail from militant trade unions is grossly offensive to postal workers. What is the difference between his argument and the situation if people were to refuse to deliver polling cards or man polling stations? He is going into the realms of fantasy.

Mr. Hawkins: I hope that the hon. Gentleman is right, but let us wait and see what happens when we have the all-postal pilots. The situation for polling cards is different. All hon. Members will be familiar with canvassing electors who say that they have not received their polling cards. Under the traditional system, we tell them that they can go to the polling station because if they can prove their name and address, the officials will accept that and give them a ballot paper. However, if ballot papers are delivered only through the post, electors who do not receive them will be deprived of their right to vote.

Although we have tried to improve the Bill and the Government have belatedly accepted several of the things that we said—we welcome the changes that they have made—we remain worried about it. We do not think that it will improve elections. In the light of what the Minister said about ignoring some of the Electoral Commission recommendations and proceeding with three pilots instead of two, we believe that we are right to mark our disapproval by voting against Third Reading.

6.29 pm

Mr. Heath: There are times when Governments need to introduce legislation in haste because of events. It is rarely good legislation. A habit is forming in the

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Department for Constitutional Affairs that also existed in its predecessor, of introducing legislation in haste when there is no need and when they have failed to predict or accommodate within their legislative plans the deadlines determined by the electoral timetable. This is one of those occasions. Nevertheless, our consideration of the Bill, especially in Committee, has been good. I thank hon. Members on both sides of the House who were involved in that, in particular my hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Mrs. Brooke) and for Southport (Dr. Pugh). He has sat patiently waiting to contribute to the debate and I hope that he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Progress has been made. The Government accepted my amendment No. 4, which they took over and called their own by adding the Minister's name to those who tabled it. I thank him for that because it improves the Bill. I am also grateful for his consideration of marked registers, which we pursued in Committee. He has accepted that they are in the interests of all parties and his proposal for them is sensible.

I am grateful to the Electoral Commission for knocking on the head the idea of a mixed all-postal and electronic election. We still have grave concerns about the efficacy of voting by electronic means and the avoidance of fraud. Those concerns have been strengthened rather than eliminated by the Electoral Commission. I am glad that the Minister has ruled out mixed voting for the pilots.

I wanted us to make more progress on fraud, personation and so on. The commission's proposals are good and need to be implemented. Although the Minister gave us vague assurances, they will be considered further in another place. The key concern for many people is whether the integrity of the ballot is maintained in all-postal elections. That is not only a problem for houses in multiple occupation. In general, there is a problem with the secrecy of the ballot and the ways in which it is more likely to be subject to malpractice than voting in person.

I am grateful to the Minister for his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole on people with disabilities. I hope that that work will continue and bear fruit so that everyone is properly involved in our electoral process.

There are some key problems. I have said all along that I am not intrinsically against novel forms of voting. There are cases for exploring ways of making the voting process better and more accessible to our electorate, but that process must be beyond challenge and reproach. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) nods, but I disagree with his argument that the Electoral Commission has no role to play. We need a degree of external arbitration on what is beyond reproach if Ministers are to introduce proposals for the House to consider, as they have done. In this case, they have decided that the north-east and east midlands should hold the pilots. I do not accept the premise behind the Bill, but I do accept that recommendation. If that is the conclusion of the Electoral Commission, those areas should hold the pilots.

The Minister is not satisfied with that. He wants a third region. As I said, if he is not changing the criteria that the Electoral Commission uses, it is bound to come to the same conclusion. In that case, he will have to override its decision for his own reasons, which he must

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give. If, on the other hand, he had accepted our amendment, he could have asked the Electoral Commission to do more work in those areas to ascertain whether it could come to a positive recommendation. The right approach would have been to say, "When you come forward with a positive recommendation for a third region, we shall adopt it, but we must have that recommendation."

In the present circumstances, the Minister will do far better by just accepting the runner up, as it were—Scotland—and be done with it. Any other solution that the Minister comes forward with will be unacceptable. It will appear to be a gerrymander, whether it is or not and that is the problem that the Minister faces.

I have not entirely supported the Bill. My colleagues and I opposed it on Second Reading and we will oppose it on Third Reading. We do so because we do not believe that there should be pilots on such a scale in a national election. It is a sensible and reasoned proposition that when there is a national election or an international election, in the case of European elections, every voter in the country should be voting on the same basis, not with some voters in full possession of the facts as they are elicited during the election campaign and some not. Some electors should not have easier access to the ballot than others. There should be consistency. That is our key objection to the proposal. What the Minister said in the course of our considerations has not changed that fact. For that reason I recommend that my right hon. and hon. Friends oppose the Bill on Third Reading.

6.36 pm

Joyce Quin : I welcome the Bill and I shall briefly explain why. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on the way in which he has presented the Government's case throughout our proceedings, both on the Floor of the House and in Committee.

I naturally wish to express my pleasure that the north-east has been recommended by the Electoral Commission as one of the pilot regions, and that the Minister has accepted that recommendation, which reflects the scale of the pilots at local elections that we have already conducted in the north-east. I think I am right in saying that the north-east is the only region where more than half the local authorities have already been involved in all-postal pilots.

The experiments have been extremely successful. Returning officers and others who have been involved in conducting such elections have not encountered the problems and genuine fears—I accept that they are genuine—that have been expressed by a number of Members during our proceedings. I accept that with all-postal elections candidates conduct themselves and campaigns are run in a somewhat different way. However, in our local experiments it has been possible to cast one's vote right up to the last day either at the civic centre or at some other designated point. It is true that even with all-postal ballots it is possible to vote fairly late in the proceedings.

I listened carefully to the point made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) about the difference in the national campaign when compared with others. However, we must recognise that local elections are often affected by national issues. Some issues that are relevant at local elections are relevant to

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local authorities throughout the country—issues relating to council tax, for example. They may be similar from one local authority area to another even though a particular local authority may be participating in a pilot and another local authority with similar issues may not. I do not think those obstacles are insuperable. If we were talking, as I hope we shall be, about rolling out on a more extensive scale, we would have to think of the consequences in terms of campaigning overall.

I reaffirm how popular the experiment in my area has been with voters. In parts of my area we have had the experiments now for three consecutive years. Like all Members at local election time, I canvas, knock on doors, and speak to people on the doorstep. The reaction to postal voting has been extremely positive, and I do not believe that we should stick with a traditional way of voting just for the sake of it. Many people, particularly in households where both partners are working, have stressed the fact that the all-postal system fits much better with their lifestyle. Of course, people may know in advance that they are going to find it difficult to get to the polling station, perhaps because both partners are working, or because they work long or unsocial hours. At the same time, my constituents warmly welcome an automatic entitlement to a postal vote. In parts of my constituency, people are used to the postal system, which they have used for three consecutive years, so there would be resentment if we went back to what they consider an old-fashioned and less convenient way of voting.

For all those reasons, I am very pleased indeed that the north-east was selected as a pilot for the experiment. I agree that we need to learn from our experience and evaluate carefully what happens in the elections, but I encourage the Government to think innovatively about voting systems. They should not be deflected by the doom and gloom that we have heard in our proceedings, because in my experience it is not borne out by reality.

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