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6.30 pm

Another part of the reason is that the Minister's repeated statements to the House have been contradicted by the Government within just a fraction over four weeks. Let me refer to what he said not once, but on a number of occasions, as recently as 16 December, when the Bill was before the House:

He also said, using a phrase of which we have made much mockery:

he indulged in an equal neologism this afternoon in talking about scalability, whatever that is—

As recently as 16 December—the last time this legislation was before the House—there was no mention of four areas. He continued:

Apparently, he hoped to come to a conclusion soon on

Clearly, he was trying to hold out hopes to all his hon. Friends, who gave him such a hard time and so much friendly fire in pleading the cause of Scotland. He told us:

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Later, he said that the Electoral Commission had recommended that there should be three all-postal pilots. Of course, it did not make such a recommendation; the Minister himself made a mistake. The commission was asked to recommend three regions, including one for an electronic pilot, and it recommended only two, for very good reasons.

Thus, as recently as 16 December, the Minister said not once, twice or three times, but about six times over five columns of Hansard that there would be three regions—the two that the Electoral Commission had recommended and a third that the Government would impose. Suddenly, though, it all changed. Who knows whether it did so for party political reasons? In a written statement on 21 January, he slipped out this announcement:

It was announced that, effectively, a swathe of the country—half of England—would be involved. That is hardly a pilot.

What caused the Government to ignore what the Electoral Commission had said about the proposed all-postal pilots for Yorkshire and the Humber and the north-west, and what was the reaction of the Government's own Electoral Commission to that snub? We must now turn to what will undoubtedly become known as the Younger letter—a letter that has already been referred to in several interventions and that was drawn to the attention of the House earlier by my hon. Friends the Members for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) and for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), who answers questions on behalf of the Electoral Commission.

Mr. Foulkes: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hawkins: I shall give way to the right hon. Gentleman, but only after I have referred to the Younger letter.

In an astonishingly strongly worded letter to the Minister, sent as recently as last Thursday, the chairman of the Electoral Commission says, among other things:

meaning Yorkshire and the Humber, the north-west and the west midlands. That was the quote that we eventually extracted from the Minister when he was trying to indulge in selective quotation. Sam Younger goes on to state:

Mr. Foulkes: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hawkins: I shall do so when I have finished referring to the Younger letter, as I have already said.

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The chairman of the Electoral Commission also states:

The Opposition are very concerned to hear that the commission was not involved in those discussions, and we are suspicious about their nature and extent. That is why I have asked the Minister—he noticeably failed to answer me—to place in the Library the full minutes of all meetings that took place involving him, the Deputy Prime Minister or any other Ministers. We believe that it is implicit in what Mr. Younger is saying that the Government have leaned on returning officers.

Mr. Foulkes: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hawkins: I shall give way to the right hon. Gentleman in a moment: I have not forgotten him.

Sam Younger's next passage is the most significant of all:

the view of the Government's own Electoral Commission—

an issue to which we will certainly return this afternoon. Mr. Younger continues:

the Minister's word. Mr. Younger also says:

The Government's own Electoral Commission, through its chairman writing to the Minister, has said that holding pilots in June covering more than a third of the English electorate goes further than it thinks necessary. The letter is very strongly worded, and it goes on to say:

Mr. Hoyle: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hawkins: I shall do so only after I have given way to the right hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) in a moment.

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The letter concludes:

The matter could be resolved very quickly if the Government returned to what the Electoral Commission itself recommended—just two electoral regions, which is what the other place voted for, as I believe it will do again.

Mr. Foulkes: I despair of this pettifogging nit-picking from the Opposition. Why does the hon. Gentleman accept the views of an unelected Chamber rather than those of an elected one? Why does he not want to make it easier for people to vote? Why does he not move into the 20th century, let alone the 21st? Is he aware that in the next general election in India, almost 700 million people will vote electronically? When will we catch up with that?

Mr. Hawkins: We debated extensively in Committee the rejection by the Government's own Electoral Commission of their proposal to have electronic voting. I do not think that I would be in order if I went back over the ground that was covered in Committee in that regard, as it is not relevant to the amendments. We believe that the Government are behaving quite wrongly in overruling the clear and strongly expressed view of the Electoral Commission that they set up.

Mr. Gummer: I invite my hon. Friend not to listen to the right hon. Gentleman who interrupted him and who misses the point entirely. It is not that we do not want more people to vote—

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