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Mr. Foulkes: Yes it is.

Mr. Gummer: The right hon. Gentleman may keep his own ideas, silly though they are, and leave me to express mine.

My hon. Friend may accept that we are concerned that we should constitute these changes in a proper way that deals with the dangers and is serious in its intent. If the Government want to have an independent Electoral Commission, would not it be better to take its advice rather than overruling it behind closed doors or listening to the silly views of the right hon. Member for the three Scottish places?

Mr. Hawkins: I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend.

Let us consider the detail of what the Electoral Commission said about the first of the extra two regions that the Government propose to add, Yorkshire and the Humber. At paragraph 2.117 of its December report, it said—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The right hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) appears to be developing a career as a sedentary sketch writer. For the sake of good order, I ought to persuade him to desist.

Mr. Hawkins: I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

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The Electoral Commission said:

That is repeated and stressed again at paragraph 3.9, which says:

That is why the Electoral Commission ruled against Yorkshire and the Humber being suitable, and why the Government should take its advice on the matter.

Mr. Hoyle: The hon. Gentleman rightly sets out what the Electoral Commission says, but will he not give any weight to what the chief executives of all the local authorities in the north-west said? Unanimously apart from two, they consider that it would be beneficial to the region to have a postal vote pilot scheme there and ensure a franchise for those who wish to vote by that method.

Mr. Hawkins: I was referring to what the Electoral Commission said about Yorkshire and the Humber, but as the hon. Gentleman has introduced the subject of the north-west, let me remind him of what it said about that region. Its concerns are different from those that it expressed about Yorkshire and the Humber. In saying that it could not make a positive recommendation in relation to the north-west, it said, at paragraph 3.10:

A much bigger concern was raised in relation to fraud. Paragraph 2.84 of the December report says:

That reinforces the concerns raised by a truly independent body, the Electoral Reform Society, which said:

Mr. Leslie: Nonsense.

6.45 pm

Mr. Hawkins: The Minister should take more notice not only of what the Electoral Reform Society said in its briefing to all hon. Members but of what Lord Greaves said—he is a man not of my own party, but one who spoke splendidly and in great detail in another place about exactly what had been going wrong in the north-west in his personal experience. He prefaced his remarks by saying that he was not being partisan, because in two cases at least, in Hackney and Havant, councillors of his own party had been convicted.

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Responding to what a Minister had said in the other place, Lord Greaves said:

He went on to talk about some of the corruption that had taken place in areas such as Bradford, and quoted the hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney). He said:

He talked about how things had gone wrong in Blackpool, Oldham, parts of Manchester, Ashton-under-Lyne, Bury, Rochdale, Blackburn, Burnley, Pendle and certain other places.

Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hawkins: Lord Greaves said that many elections in the region would be rigged.

On the second day of Grand Committee in the other place, Lord Greaves went into a great deal of detail about what had happened in Pendle. He talked about what went wrong in terms of the delivery of postal votes to the home of a Labour candidate's cousin in a different town: 61 postal votes were sent to two addresses in Rochdale. He said that there had been television documentaries and articles in The Guardian about postal vote fiddles in various areas, including East Lancashire. "Channel 4 News" had interviewed a voter whose vote had been stolen, as well as a young Asian man whose voting papers had been delivered along with 44 other postal votes to 126 Chapel street, which it claimed was the home of a Labour candidate's brother-in-law. That year, a lot of complaints were made at polling stations, and Pendle borough council's returning officer made a report.

Andrew Bennett: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hawkins: In the case of one family living at Fir street in Nelson, none of whom had applied for a postal vote, six votes were sent to 77 Barkerhouse road. Lord Greaves set all that out in tremendous detail in another place, describing precisely the dangers of electoral fraud that the Electoral Commission referred to in its report as the main reason why it felt that the north-west was unsuitable. We agree with Lord Greaves in thinking that there are very good reasons why Yorkshire and the Humber and the north-west are completely unsuitable for postal pilots.

Andrew Bennett: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hawkins: We believe that this House should support another place in returning to the original two regions, and only those two.

Andrew Bennett: The hon. Gentleman might have considered giving way, because he might have been able to tell us which of those examples of fraud took place where there were pilots for the proposals, and which took place under the existing system. I would suspect that 90 per cent. of the examples that he gave took place under the present system.

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I should make it absolutely clear to the House that I am speaking now because it is very important that my constituents be able to vote in this summer's elections by post. I have been encouraging people in my area to register for postal votes under the current system, and it has been very hard work. The hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) complained about one of the ways in which I have been doing so, and I should make it clear that if I have thereby breached any of the rules of the House, I unreservedly apologise. But I make no apology for wanting my constituents to be able to vote by post, because I firmly believe that it is essential in a democracy that we achieve a high turnout.

I was obviously very pleased with the result of the last general election, but I was horrified to find that less than half the people in Denton and Reddish had voted. That problem affects not just local and European elections, but elections such as general elections, and in many ways the issue is the way in which the campaigning is conducted. I want briefly to illustrate the point by explaining what happened to me on the Tuesday before the Thursday's general election poll. I went to an area that was probably fairly strong for the Labour party, accompanied by a significant number of canvassers. We walked down the streets, and for me, as a candidate, it was brilliant. People came out of their houses and they wanted to shake my hand, and they wanted posters and autographs. We felt great.

That was a marvellous experience, but when I went back down the same streets on polling night with a loudspeaker, no one emerged from their front doors and there was no sign of anyone going to the polling station. On reaching the count, it was very obvious that we had put up more posters in those streets than we had gained votes. So far as the people of that part of my constituency were concerned, there was no contest. They had listened to the media and they knew what was going to happen nationally. They had received no literature from the other political parties, and they felt no excitement and no pressure to vote. One can well understand why it was easier for them to stop at home—easier, for example, not to put their small children into the pram and take them to the polling station. It was better to stay in, have tea and watch the television than to turn out, because they assumed that the election was a walkover, which, in effect, it was. That is one of the problems: in terms of local electioneering, less and less is happening in many parts of the country. People do not get the feeling that the election is close and that their vote will make the difference.

If we move to a postal voting system, many people will be able to vote at a time that suits them. They will not have to worry about the baby that is crying or the meal that must be prepared, so there are very strong reasons why we should move to such a system.

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