Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I must interrupt the hon. Gentleman again. We are looking at a specific amendment, which deals with the method of election rather than campaigning. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would address his remarks accordingly.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I greatly respect you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and will seek to honour your ruling and your request.

The electoral system has a bearing on the matter. Because the Electoral Commission was concerned about the impact of the change, it wanted to limit the pilot project to two regions rather than extending it to almost half of England. There is a grave risk—

Andrew Bennett: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I am happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman—a closeish neighbour in the north-west.

Andrew Bennett: When the European elections are held under the proposed system, I should not want the hon. Gentleman to feel that he was redundant. I am sure that he will be happy to continue knocking on doors for the Conservative candidate in those elections right up to polling day, to ensure that all the postal votes are returned.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: That is one of the friendliest interventions that I have taken in almost 33 years in this place. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and am only sorry that he is standing down at the next election. No doubt that will give him an opportunity to come to Macclesfield to encourage whichever of his party's candidates stands against me.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Will the hon. Gentleman be Lord Denton or Lord Reddish?

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I am not sure.

I believe fervently in the personal relationship between the elected and the electorate and I am worried that a system of all-postal elections will break that down. I am particularly concerned about the security and integrity of the electoral register because of the fraud that may arise under the new process. If the Minister can give me some assurances I shall be grateful, but as things stand I shall most certainly vote to uphold their lordships in their amendment.

Dr. Pugh: My remarks will be brief. I have a strong sense of déjà vu. On a previous occasion, I suggested that choosing the north-west as a pilot area was not a good idea and I suggest the same today.

Returning officers in the north-west certainly have concerns, not about their own efficiency but about the confusion that will be created in the mind of the

8 Mar 2004 : Column 1316

electorate. In the north-west, we have 80 per cent. voting on atypical, all-up local council elections—not by thirds and not on the usual boundaries in every case—while the European elections are held according to a completely different system. That is complication upon complication, which in normal circumstances would create a lot of extra work for polling clerks. It is innovation piled on innovation.

The Government expect that people receiving a mountain of paper—explanatory notes and so on—will feel more motivated to vote and more confident in doing so. However, a sane person would predict much confusion and a high number of errors. The system will give no assurance to the electorate and it will certainly not reassure candidates in tight contests. The Government have put forward a new argument today—developed for the purpose—that complication is actually an advantage and can help the pilots.

The Electoral Commission agrees fundamentally with me and Opposition Members. It has serious concerns about fraud and said that the north-west was not ready for such a pilot. In our last debate on the measure, I concluded my speech by observing that, given the evidence and the comments of the Electoral Commission, anyone who went against its views would seem to be acting purely from naked party political objectives. That is still how it seems.

During our previous debates, I was—strangely—impressed by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) who, like some Government Members, argued that decisions about the voting system are properly the matter of Parliament, not of the Electoral Commission. He drew the logical conclusion that there was little point in the Electoral Commission at all—there was no point in its making recommendations or even existing.

There is a serious weakness in the Government's position, because they allow the Electoral Commission to make recommendations so that any proposal will be free from the taint of party political advantage and will have a degree of independence, yet when push comes to shove and those independent recommendations are not to their liking, they overrule them for—it is suggested—party political advantage. If that is the case, the Electoral Commission is simply being reduced to a fig leaf for straightforward brutalist politics. If I were the chairman of the Electoral Commission I should be considering my position. A resignation would certainly force the Government to come clean on the issue.

Some Labour Members suggest that the all-postal system does not so much help Labour but shores up the democratic vote against the likes of the British National party, to prevent it from winning a Euro seat, and that could be the hidden plan, for all I know. Stopping the BNP is a laudable objective, but an all-postal ballot is no more likely to achieve it than other means. The defeat of the BNP in the north-west will be secured neither by that means nor by taking a media circus to confront it in Burnley. To defeat the BNP in the north-west, we need to out-campaign it, as the Lib Dems largely do in

8 Mar 2004 : Column 1317

Burnley. I was privileged to assist the Lib Dems there recently when the BNP had a seat taken from it by good old-fashioned campaigning; the BNP was defeated at the ballot box.

I suggest to Labour Members that they will not defeat racism by skewing the voting system; we defeat racism by winning the arguments against it.

Mr. Barron: I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman about taking on any party—that is what campaigning and politics are about. However, it is fundamentally wrong to say that an all-out postal ballot would skew politics. My experience is the opposite; such ballots encourage participation. Of course, we shall have to wait and see, but if the tide is running against a political party—no matter which one—a higher turnout means that it will be drowned faster.

Dr. Pugh: I agree that an all-postal ballot would not actually skew politics, but to go against the advice of the Electoral Commission looks like strange and shameful shenanigans. Equally, there is a certain degree of feebleness in believing that one cannot beat the BNP in any other way.

In conclusion, we may—oddly enough—need the non-elected Chamber to uphold democratic values in this case.

Mr. Leslie: With permission, I should like briefly to respond to the debate. I apologise to the House for having spoken at length in opening the debate, but I thought it important to set out in detail the Government's case and I sought to give way to a number of hon. Members. I hope that that was a useful process, even though I may well not have persuaded some Opposition Members, but I live in hope.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) reiterated his opposition to all-postal piloting. I explained the rationale behind selecting the four regions that we have chosen. We very much followed the ranked order of the potentially suitable regions suggested by the Electoral Commission. He also repeated a number of allegations that were made in the other place about impropriety in the north-west, many of which are unsubstantiated. Certainly, no convictions have resulted from any all-postal piloting experience. That is also an important point to put on the record.

My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) said that he is a keen advocate of postal voting. He made his views loud and clear, and they are now on the record. It is useful that his opinion has been aired in the debate.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) made an important point in quoting the Electoral Commission's opinion that there is no evidence that postal voting is any more prone to fraud than conventional voting.

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) made an interesting and wide-ranging speech. He mentioned his possible attraction to compulsory voting, which, compared with all-postal voting, seems even more radical, but his views are also on the record.

8 Mar 2004 : Column 1318

8 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) highlighted again the flaws of the conventional voting system. Indeed, postal voting will continue to be part of the conventional voting system. He also highlighted some of the possible advantages that may well flow from all-postal voting.

The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) thought that we should consider other ways to encourage participation in our democracy. For example, he wanted to assert the House's importance to the wider world. If the House reaches its own decision on all-postal voting tonight, I hope that the other place will allow the House to have its way. That is an important part of the process.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: When I mentioned Parliament and the House, I was referring to the House of Commons and the House of Lords. I have the greatest regard for their lordships in the other place, as an amending and delaying Chamber.

Next Section

IndexHome Page