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Lords amendment: No. 1.
'(c) Yorkshire and the Humber;
(d) North West.'
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.
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
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: 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:
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.
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 pilotwhether it is two, three or four regions.
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. 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 Decemberthe 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.