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Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) (Lab): I took great exception when the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) said that Yorkshire and the Humber should not have the right to hold an all-postal ballot in June because of the stream of wrongdoing and breaches of electoral law that he read out. I suppose that such things do not happen in places like Surrey or Somerset, or anywhere else. I take exception to that being cited as the reason for opposing the idea.

If Opposition Members are relying on arguments about fraud and breaking electoral law, it would be more consistent if they argued not that two regions

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should have the systems proposed for the east midlands and the north-east in June, but that no regions should have them. To my knowledge, that position has not been put in this House or in the other place, and there would be greater consistency if it had been. I find it difficult to accept that that position is being put in the Lords amendment.

One reason why we have gone from two assemblies to four is that in October this year there will be an all-postal vote for a referendum on whether there will be regional assemblies for the north-west and Yorkshire and Humber. That is why the Government have acted and I support them—that is a sensible way to approach the issue, and I am in favour of it. Many things have been said in this House and the other place about fraud and the breaching of secrecy. Given the arguments that we have heard in the past hour, it would be more consistent to argue for stopping all postal voting, never mind all-postal votes. However, those arguments are wrong.

The other issue I want to take up is what the Electoral Commission said about Yorkshire and the Humber. Returning officers prefer not to change conventional methods of voting, but that is not peculiar to Yorkshire and the Humber. I have stood in five general elections, and in the first three of them the returning officers in Rotherham borough said that it was impossible to count the votes from the Rother Valley and Wentworth on the Thursday night of the general election. They used to leave us until the next day and just count the votes from Rotherham on the night. I had to run a campaign to get that changed in 1997, but the returning officers said that it could not be done. In the public sector—and, indeed, the private sector—if people are asked to change how they work and interact with one another, the first thing that they always say is, "We cannot do that. It cannot be done." I understand that the returning officers in Yorkshire and the Humber have changed, and that pleases me. There is no reason why we should not pass legislation to improve turnout at elections, and at local government elections in particular.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman should know that some Conservative Members think that postal voting will increase turnout, and if all things were equal we would recommend it. However, such a widespread experiment cannot proceed until the real issues of impersonation, pressure and fraud are dealt with. That is our case tonight; we are not against postal voting in principle.

Mr. Barron: The Electoral Commission published a report in July last year called "The shape of elections to come", which covers the local government election pilots that took place last May. It states that fraud is no more likely in an all-postal vote than it is under the current system where people go to the polling station. I do not have the report with me; it is in my constituency office.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath shakes his head, but I read that report and I shall tell him why I read it. Last May, Rotherham metropolitan borough council had an all-postal vote for local government elections for the first time in the 25 years that I have been involved in

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politics. The all-postal vote was the best thing that has ever happened to local elections because it improved the turnout to more than 50 per cent. In one of my wards, turnout was just over 20 per cent. in 2000; under the all-postal vote, it more than doubled to over 53 per cent.

7.15 pm

After the publication of "The shape of elections to come" and before a decision was taken on whether there should be all-postal votes for the local government and European elections this year, I wrote to the Electoral Commission to say that it would be completely consistent for it to extend its pilot scheme in Rotherham last May to this year's local government elections. I said that for numerous reasons, but one of them was that the Electoral Commission itself was saying that the future of local government elections is likely to be all-postal ballots. Indeed, the executive summary of "The shape of elections to come" states:

If hon. Members do not support the amendment in lieu, turnout in my constituency will be knocked back and it will be a retrograde step for this year's local government elections. It makes sense to use all-postal voting in June and in the referendum vote later in the year. I do not say that for party political reasons but to get people actively to participate in local government elections. All hon. Members know that there have been by-elections in some parts of the country where turnout has hardly reached double figures, and we have seen reduced turnouts in local government elections year upon year. If we do not start to get serious about increasing participation, people will not bother to vote.

I have read all the arguments put in the other place on 23 February, and most, if not all, of them are party political. Two councils were mentioned in the other place and they are both against all-postal votes: Liverpool council in the north-west, which is Liberal; and Bradford council in Yorkshire and Humber, which is Tory.

I believe that Lord Rennard is a Liberal Democrat—I looked him up in "Dod's"—and he gave three reasons why we should not get involved in all-postal votes. He said,

Ballot papers are, of course, delivered between 25 and 29 May, and anybody can work that out. Some of the Opposition parties in my constituency did not work it out in May last year. We were leafleting at the end of April, but they were not—they did not realise that votes come early in a postal vote system. Under the current system where there is no all-postal voting, ballot papers still fall on people's carpets a bit before the election, and it is up to political parties to organise their leafleting.

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Lord Rennard went on to say that notwithstanding those reservations it is right to have all-postal votes in two regions but not in four. If he believes that all-postal votes undermine the Ballot Act 1872, lack secrecy and privacy and raise concerns about potential fraud, why does he believe that they should happen in two regions only and not in four?

Dr. Pugh: The Electoral Commission did not mention fraud as a serious consideration in the two areas that it proposed, whereas it mentioned fraud in the north-west.

Mr. Barron: In "The shape of elections to come", the Electoral Commission states that all-postal votes are no different from the current system. One cannot argue that all-postal votes should not happen in the north-west or Yorkshire and the Humber because of the potential for fraud. That is an argument not to have all-postal ballots at all.

I mention the north-west and Yorkshire and the Humber because of the referendum that will happen later this year. The Bill will introduce an all-postal ballot, which makes sense. I do not know why the Electoral Commission does not see that. Its document about all-postal voting, published in July, states:

The point is that we cannot keep chopping and changing. Rotherham has had one all-postal vote that doubled the turnout in local government elections. Going back to using polling stations in June—I know that the elections are also European elections—could decrease participation by half. It would be nonsense then to change back in October.

Conservative Members know that they are playing party politics, and that is also what is being played in the other place. I hope that they lose, because they are wrong to use the issue for party political reasons. This is about more active participation in elections and nobody who is elected to this House should vote to discourage that.

As for those non-elected people in the other place, I shall not express what I feel about them, except to say that they are playing the issue for party politics. The debate on 23 February showed that from the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives alike. It is a shame, because it will set back participation greatly if amendment (a) is not accepted or if it is rejected again in the other place. However, that would confirm my belief that I was right to vote for the amendment a year ago to abolish the other place. If the Lords reject the amendment, people in my constituency will probably agree that they should be abolished, because that would remove people's rights to vote and lessen their participation. I hope that hon. Members will support the amendment and that the four pilots will mean that local government elections in all constituencies will all be all-postal votes in years to come. That is what the Electoral Commission expects.

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