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Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire) (Con): As the Minister has thrown the main conclusions of the Electoral Commission into the dustbin, why is he wasting the time of the House telling us other things that the commission has said when he obviously does not believe in much of its views anyway?

Mr. Leslie: I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman is listening to what I am saying. I do not follow his intervention. Perhaps it will become clearer later.

Mr. Gummer: What my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Sir Michael Spicer) says goes to the gravamen of the issue. Many of us are unhappy about the entire proposal. We think that, if people do not vote, it is because they think that the operation of the local authority is not sufficiently interesting to them, not because they cannot find the polling station. We are prepared to go along with the Minister to some extent if the independent Electoral Commission made the suggestions to which he referred. However, if he undermines what the commission has said, many of us who have been prepared to give the proposals a try will say to ourselves, "It has ceased to be an independent operation. Once again, it has become something manipulated by the Government for reasons which sometimes we do not understand but no doubt there is some reason for it." The Minister could say, "This is what the commission suggested. It has said that that is not suitable. Therefore, let us move forward on the two suggestions that it has made."

Mr. Leslie: The right hon. Gentleman would be the first person to chastise the Government if we abrogated our responsibility and passed decision making to the Electoral Commission, rather than having the buck stop here with decisions being made in the House. Ultimately, the commission gives advice. We listen to

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that advice, but we have a responsibility to make our own decisions, for which we are accountable to the electorate. That is an important principle—I know that the right hon. Gentleman would not wish to disagree with that.

Mr. Gummer: There is a reason why matters of electoral reform should be decided as independently as possible. It is because no Government can pretend that they are not party politically pressed. When they make a change of the sort that is proposed, it must lead people to believe that the Government have done it for party political advantage. That is what Governments are about.

Mr. Leslie: I am surprised by the right hon. Gentleman's approach. The Electoral Commission has said that it does not wish to make final decisions. It gives advice but it is ultimately a matter for Ministers and Parliament to make decisions. That is a sensible constitutional approach.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend accept that we should all come to the debate troubled, in that an ever increasing number of voters are totally uninterested in what we and other representative organisations do? Does he also accept that we should seriously turn our minds to how we might bridge the gap between our electors and ourselves? As the Government have made the decision, regardless of whether it was exactly what the Electoral Commission said or whether it extended that advice, some local authorities have already begun to plan for the elections on the basis of what the House said would be the basis on which the elections would be held. It should trouble us all that perhaps next time a majority of voters will not even turn out to elect us. Would it not be good for the Opposition on this issue to accept that we are searching for different ways to engage with them?

6 pm

Mr. Leslie: My right hon. Friend articulates the position relatively well. We must all, regardless of party, be conscious that the lower turnouts in local and European elections are a matter of concern.

Mr. Field: In general elections as well.

Mr. Leslie: Indeed. One way of addressing that is through all-postal voting, and it is worth piloting that to try it out, which is what the Bill seeks to do.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Leslie: No, because I should like to make some progress.

Mr. Bercow : I should be very grateful.

Mr. Leslie: I will not give way.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. However grateful the hon. Member is, the Minister is not giving way.

Mr. Leslie: I should like to make some progress.

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We considered the Electoral Commission's recommendations on which regions were potentially suitable in the order in which they were recommended. We considered Scotland in some depth, and held meetings with the regional returning officer and electoral administrators with a view to allaying the concerns that they had expressed. Unfortunately, and despite Government assurances, Scottish administrators were not convinced that effective pilots could be held there, so the decision was taken not to impose a pilot in Scotland. Meetings with the regional returning officers and senior electoral officials from Yorkshire and the Humber and the north-west, however, showed that both regions felt operationally capable of running a pilot.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (Lab/Co-op): We are disappointed that there is not to be a pilot in Scotland. In a recent by-election for South Ayrshire council at which there was a postal vote pilot, the turnout was higher than 60 per cent., more than twice what it was in the previous year's council elections. That by-election was a Conservative win because of the way in which the vote went on that particular day, and I make no protest at that, however foolish the voters may have been. However, we should all be pleased that more people voted in that pilot scheme. To hear Conservative Members say that we are carrying out the scheme for party political advantage is rich, coming from them. They want to stop people voting, for their party political advantage, and it is about time we shouted that from the rooftops.

Mr. Leslie: I know that my right hon. Friend is disappointed that we are not proceeding with all-postal voting in Scotland, but we would have been wrong not to listen carefully to the views of the administrators on the ground—the regional and local returning officers. It was on that basis that we decided not to proceed in Scotland. However, following discussions with officials in Yorkshire and the Humber and in the north-west, we decided after much thought that all-postal voting should be tested in those regions. We have worked as hard as we can to address some of the concerns of members of the Electoral Commission and others to make certain that we can proceed safely with all-postal voting pilots in Yorkshire and the Humber and in the north-west.

Mr. Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): I am following my hon. Friend's arguments carefully, and I shall vote in the same Lobby as him this evening. However, since the original debate in the House, the Disability Rights Commission has presented evidence to the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, showing its extreme concern that all-postal ballots are discriminatory unless specific alterations to the process are made. Has my hon. Friend had time to consider its recommendations?

Mr. Leslie: I have had time to consider representations from various disability rights organisations. Some are keen on all-postal voting because there are physical impediments that make it difficult for some people with disabilities to go to polling

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stations. There are pros and cons on both sides, but the Government feel that to try out all-postal voting is a good way to proceed.

Jon Trickett (Hemsworth) (Lab): On that point, many people in Yorkshire welcome this initiative, particularly those who represent coalfield areas. In my constituency, which is at the heart of the former Yorkshire coalfield, two out of five households include at least one person with a long-term sickness or disability. Those people want to be treated the same as the rest of the population, not differently, and it seems to me, speaking on their behalf, that an all-postal vote for everyone is the best way of removing discrimination. Does the Minister agree, and will he accept my assurance that we in Yorkshire are willing to proceed as quickly as possible?

Mr. Leslie: Postal voting is popular for various reasons, some of which my hon. Friend articulates. I believe that it is now right to scale up piloting from local authority to regional level, which is, precisely and simply, what we are trying to do.

Mr. Bercow: Given that, to most casual observers, a postal vote must necessarily constitute a vote cast by post—presumably on that, if on no other point, there is unanimity in the House—can the Minister tell us, with reference to proposed new subsection (4) in Lords amendment No. 1, in what circumstances one would use

According to what criteria would such methods, rather than the conventional postal method, be chosen?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Before the Minister replies, may I remark that interventions seem to be getting very long? As there is limited time for the debate, may I urge a little more reversion to the idea of an intervention, which is brief?

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