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European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill

Lords amendments considered.

Clause 1

Piloting Conduct at European and Local Elections

Lords amendment: No. 1.

5.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): I beg to move amendment (a) to the Lords amendment, in line 15, at end insert—

'(c) Yorkshire and the Humber;
(d) North West.'

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): With this we may discuss Lords amendments Nos. 2, 4 to 12, 14 to 20, 22, 24 to 43 and 45 to 50.

Mr. Leslie: This large group of amendments brings the Bill up to date. Apart from the issue dealt with in our amendment, we agree with their lordships on the need to name in the Bill the regions to pilot all-postal voting. The amendments negate the need for an affirmative order by naming all-postal voting as the method of piloting and specifying the choice of pilot regions. That has allowed greater parliamentary scrutiny and means that electoral administrators will be able to plan with certainty without having to wait for an order to be brought before both Houses.

Government amendment (a) reinstates Yorkshire and the Humber and the north-west as pilot regions, supplementing the north-east and the east midlands as the Government's preferred four regions for piloting, as I announced in January. Although their lordships opted for only two regions, I shall explain why I hope that the House of Commons will settle on four regions and why this can be the final word on the matter.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend perfectly satisfied that there is sufficient time for the regulators to ensure that the machinery is in place in the north-west, because it was thought that we would not be included in the pilot scheme? Although many of us approve of postal voting, we are worried about people acting fraudulently to change the results in those constituencies where, for one reason or another, the vote is close.

Mr. Leslie: I hope to put my hon. Friend's mind at rest by quoting the regional returning officer for the north-west. I shall come to his specific comments and how he is content to have all-postal voting in the north-west shortly. However, it will help if I first remind the House why we are considering the issue.

Turnout in local and European elections has been low for some time. As society evolves, it is important that our democracy can also evolve to match the lifestyles

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and needs of the public. We have a responsibility to make the process of casting a vote as convenient and simple as possible. The more obstacles in the way, the fewer will cast a vote, and the less likely it is that elected politicians will receive a resounding mandate if turnout continues to weaken.

One of several reforms that could help is improving the physical mechanisms of voting. Taking the choice to the elector instead of always requiring the elector to seek out the polling station is a tactic worth trying. I emphasise that that is worth trying because we are talking about pilots.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): It is a tactic worth trying. The independent Electoral Commission agreed with that. Irrespective of the north-west and Yorkshire and the Humber, the commission

in the pilot exercise. As recently as last week, it was still saying that it felt that those regions were unsuitable to run postal pilots. Why will the Minister not take seriously the independent advice of the Electoral Commission?

Mr. Leslie: I shall come to that point. The hon. Gentleman is misrepresenting the Electoral Commission's position. It is not saying that Yorkshire or the north-west are not suitable. On the contrary, it is saying that they are potentially suitable. It has said that all along. I shall deal with these points in more detail later in my remarks.

Mr. Brady: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Leslie: No. I shall make some progress on this matter.

Mr. Brady: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Minister has accused me of misrepresenting the views of the Electoral Commission, yet I have a letter dated 4 March from the chairman of the commission to the Minister. I was quoting from that letter, in which he says:

I ask the Minister to apologise to me for the allegation that he has made.

Mr. Leslie: That was the correct representation—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that we have the gist of the point made by the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady). Perhaps the Minister will respond. It is a matter for the Minister and not one for the Chair.

Mr. Leslie: It is always the last refuge of the hon. Gentleman to resort to a point of order to make his political point. However, he is wrong about the

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Electoral Commission so I shall not apologise. I shall read from the letter that he quoted. The commission states:

The other four regions were those that were deemed to be not potentially suitable. I hope that that clarifies the situation for the hon. Gentleman.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): This is not good enough. I had the opportunity last week to talk personally to Mr. Sam Younger, the chairman of the Electoral Commission. Among other things, I discussed this matter with him. He made it plain that he thought that two pilots were enough. He accepted three at a stretch, but certainly he preferred two. He made his advice unequivocal and plain. The Minister has decided to discard that advice. Why?

Mr. Leslie: The hon. Gentleman is more circumspect in the way that he describes the position of the chairman of the Electoral Commission. I, too, had discussions with the chairman last week. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is disagreement about how we define a pilot—whether it is two, three or four regions.

I return to the letter. The commission writes:

It felt unable to make a positive recommendation in respect of those regions, but it stated that they were potentially suitable. It is wrong to say that the commission was saying no to Yorkshire or no to the north-west. That is not the right characterisation of the commission's position.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Leslie: I should like to make some progress—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The Minister is not giving way.

Mr. Leslie: We shall have plenty of opportunity, if I might make some progress, to delve into some of these issues. I will certainly give way to the hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.]

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Leslie: Indeed, the right hon. Gentleman. I shall do so later.

We want to be sure, through piloting, that we can both increase the convenience of casting a vote and maintain public confidence in the security of our voting systems. That is what we are talking about. Piloting is about learning lessons. The more experience we have, the better will be the final outcome of policy. Pilots so far have been small in scale. We have always said that the Bill is about scaling up to regional level.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): What representations has my hon. Friend had from local

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authorities, either through the leaders of those authorities or through the chief executives within the north-west, in support of a pilot scheme?

Mr. Leslie: Later, I shall quote at length to show that we have had positive support, especially from authorities in the north-west of England, in favour of all-postal voting. I know that my hon. Friend will welcome that.

It is important that we underline the view of the Electoral Commission, which advised us about which of the regions would be the most suitable candidates. It did not merely recommend two regions that it considered suitable without referring to anywhere else. The commission made a number of recommendations and, broadly speaking, they were split into three categories. First were the regions that were positively recommended, second were regions that were potentially suitable and third were regions that were not suitable. We accepted those regions that were described as positively recommended back in December—the north-east and the east midlands. We then worked through those regions that were described as potentially suitable in the order of ranking as set by the Electoral Commission.

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