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Sir Patrick Cormack : I sincerely hope that all-postal votes will not become the norm. It is certainly a novel

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concept that only the Labour party is approaching the issue from a non-partisan point of view—pull the other one!

The Minister was allowed to range widely on the issue, and I trust that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will allow me to do so also. On the specific issue of the Electoral Commission, it is a great pity that the Minister has reacted as he has. It is a good thing if those who determine the way in which elections are conducted are kept at arm's length from this place and from politicians of all parties. That is why I have always supported the strictly impartial position of the boundary commissions. Sometimes they have made inconvenient recommendations. One such report was extremely inconvenient for me personally in 1997 because it took away the best part of my former constituency. I was left with a lovely area, which I am delighted to represent, but the area that I lost—it is now represented by the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney)—was the best bit, electorally speaking. I make no complaint about that and I did not contest at the inquiry the boundary commission's right to recommend it. However, I slightly regret that the Electoral Commission does not follow more closely the boundary commission model in its responsibilities and its constitutional relationship to the Government. I accept that this House determined otherwise—indeed, with the Government's vast majority, what else could we determine?

I have known Sam Younger for a long time, and long before he became the chairman of the Electoral Commission. Indeed, his late father, Kenneth Younger, was a distinguished Labour Member of Parliament for my home town of Grimsby, and he was one of my early parliamentary idols as well as a rival. I had a very high regard for him. Sam Younger is a man of total impartiality and integrity, and nobody would dispute that. I have met most of his fellow commissioners, and I believe that they are of similar quality and calibre. It is regrettable that when the commission made it plain that it wanted two pilots—

Mr. Leslie indicated dissent.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Yes, it did. It is pure sophistry and untypically disingenuousness of the Minister to pretend otherwise. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) have made it plain—and I have talked to Sam Younger about the matter—that the commission was happy to recommend two pilots, but it was not happy with more. It conceded that the Government would want a third pilot, but it certainly did not expect the Government to propose four. Mr. Younger has made his position plain beyond any equivocation in the letter that is now in the Library. The letter has been quoted extensively in the debate, so I shall not quote it again.

I have talked to Sam Younger about the wider issue involved and I shall put it to the House. The right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) said that he had fought five general elections, but I have fought 11—nine of them successfully. When I started fighting general elections in 1964 it was difficult to get a postal vote. For some time, the categories of people entitled to

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a postal vote were very limited. It was a Conservative Government who allowed those who were going on holiday to have postal votes. At the time, there was some opposition from the Labour party because it was thought that Conservatives went on more holidays than Labour people and that it therefore was a party political move. I do not believe that and, indeed, the change was wise.

Postal votes should be available on request, without having to prove that one travels on business, will be on holiday on polling day or is sick—all the criteria with which we are familiar. I am much less happy with the idea of compulsory postal voting. I would personally prefer compulsory voting. We all want to increase the turnout, and that is the method that is used in some other countries. Making voting compulsory does not mean that one has to cast a vote for a party. An option on the ballot paper could allow voters to say, "A plague on both your houses", or words to that effect. However, everybody would have to vote, either by post or in person.

If we look back at history, we can see how people struggled to obtain secret ballots and then to extend the franchise. Women in particular struggled to get the vote. The right to vote is precious and it should not be too lightly taken for granted. There is much to be said for making going to the polling station or applying for a postal vote a conscious act. It is not wrong for the House to consider alternatives. We are talking about pilots, although they would cover a third of the United Kingdom and almost half of England. That is a massive amount of people who would have to vote by post. I ask colleagues on both sides of the House to consider what that would mean if it was extended to a general election. I concede that the argument is different for local elections, but if extended to general elections, it will mean the abolition of polling day—[Interruption.] Yes, it will. People have to vote by a certain date—perhaps 9 June, 1 May or whatever—and they have to vote in advance.

7.30 pm

We all know from our experience of fighting elections that, whether it be the result of a Sheffield rally or some other event, opinions can be swayed and people can be persuaded to change their minds. They may either stay at home in greater numbers or even switch their votes. Abolishing polling day—that is effectively what it means—will change the whole way in which elections are conducted. It will change how we all campaign, and in general elections—again I concede that it is different for local elections—it will mean much more voting for the party, or perhaps for the potential Prime Minister, rather than for the individual local Member of Parliament.

I believe that there is not a single Member—either present tonight or not—who fails to cherish and relish his or her relationship with that part of the United Kingdom that he or she has the good fortune to represent. We all like to conduct our campaigns in our own way, and I am sure that we all like to tell electors that they are not voting for Sir Alec Douglas-Home or

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Mr. Wilson, "but for me". We take pride in that, but it will be a casualty of any decision to move towards wholly postal elections—it truly will.

Mr. Barron: I agree with the hon. Gentleman about compulsory voting. I remember arguing the same point from the Opposition Benches back in the early 1980s, and there were few takers, when the example was a country such as Australia. He says that postal voting will abolish general election day, but it will not. Depending on the sort of pilot, it is not compulsory postal voting. People in my constituency who wanted to vote in a ballot box for local government elections last year could go along on the day and deliver their vote in the polling station as they had in the past. Not every polling station was open, but the votes were taken to the count and counted in the same way as the others. It made no difference to the final result. It will not result in the abolition of how things were done in the past.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I am sorry, but the right hon. Gentleman and I will have to disagree. If we move towards all-postal elections, that is what will happen. I must tell the House that we should examine our elections on the merits of individual cases. I can concede that there is a case for a postal ballot in local elections. I am much less happy when it comes to European elections, and I am deeply unhappy about the current conduct of such elections where we vote for a party rather than an individual. The old European constituencies were large, but people nevertheless identified with an area and different parts of the country were represented. Now, however, there are many MEPs for the west midlands, but not one has a specific commitment or responsibility to any particular area. I do not like that system at all, and it will be made worse by having compulsory postal ballots in half of England or a third of the UK.

Every Member present should be thinking about the impact on general elections. The next general election will not be affected, because there will not be enough time. However, if we move down this road—I have already said that it will mean the abolition of a set polling day, because most people will have voted, 10, nine or seven days beforehand—we will change the whole nature of campaigning and of democracy in this country. Before adopting that course, I beg the House to think seriously about the better alternative of compulsory voting.

I end where I began with the merits of the specific amendment before us. Many disparaging remarks have been made about Members of the other place, but I believe that they bring knowledge and objectivity to the debate—[Interruption.] They certainly do. After all, electoral registration officers, whom the Minister prays in aid, are just as unelected and unrepresentative as Members of the other place. Those Members bring objectivity and knowledge—in some cases based on years of service in this House—to debates, and I believe that that they cast their votes wisely and that this House would be ill advised to reject what they have recommended. I say that for two reasons: first, for the reasons advanced in the other place; and, secondly, because we would be backing the Electoral Commission, which the Government, sadly, are not.

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