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Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I now have to announce the results of the Division deferred from a previous day on the question relating to Fisheries: Catch Quotas and Effort Limitation 2004. The Ayes were 255 and the Noes were 149, so the Question was agreed to.

[The Division List is published at the end of today's debates.]

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Orders of the Day

European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill

Lords message considered [18 March]

Lords amendment 1D

4.42 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 1D to Commons amendment 1C.

The amendment would abrogate the powers of this House of Commons and the Government to decide which regions to select for all-postal voting in the forthcoming local and European elections in June, and pass that decision to the Electoral Commission. It is yet another attempt by the other place to overturn the will of this House of Commons. It would be a nonsensical position for this House to adopt.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con) rose—

Mr. Leslie: Speaking of nonsensical, I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. McLoughlin: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, although it is a pity that he cannot do so in the normal courteous way. I am sure that he was in his place earlier when the Deputy Prime Minister said that it was unacceptable for an unelected House to do what it is doing on this Bill. Why should we then rely so much, as the Government wish us to do, on the Electoral Commission, which is also unelected?

Mr. Leslie: The hon. Gentleman aids my case. I do not want the House to accept Lords amendment 1D. We should not give the decision to the Electoral Commission. We have the responsibility as legislators to listen to its advice, but ultimately it is for us to accept or reject its advice. Indeed, the Electoral Commission has itself made that point. It does not want to make the decision. Sam Younger wrote to the Deputy Prime Minister only yesterday to say that its role was to advise. The letter says:

The Electoral Commission disagrees with the Government about the scale of postal voting. It feels that four regions are too many. The Government disagree, but it is for the House of Commons to reach a final conclusion. We have made our view known time and again, and it is now time to reiterate it.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for graciously giving way. What is the point of a reformed House of Lords, which we were told now had more authority, if every time that it comes up with a good idea, Ministers slap it down and vote it down?

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Mr. Leslie: If the right hon. Gentleman seriously thinks that he can explain to his constituents that, no matter what they may want or for whom they may vote, they will not be able to secure reforms because the other place takes a different view and if he feels that that is a legitimate way for us to govern the country, surely the dividing lines between the two parties have never been any clearer.

As I have said, the Electoral Commission has made its views known about the scale of postal voting. We disagree with its view that four regions are too many and we feel that postal voting can go ahead in those regions. Yet the Electoral Commission has also said that, as well as the east midlands and the north-east proceeding, we should consider those regions that it defined as potentially suitable, including Yorkshire and the north-west. We wish to proceed with those two regions, thus making up the four regions that we recommend. The House has ratified that decision time and again.

Returning officers, especially in Yorkshire and the north-west, are now more resolute and more certain that they want to proceed with all-postal voting. Surely they are in the best position to know the ability of those regions to proceed. If they are telling us that they want to move ahead, not on the conventional basis but with all-postal voting, we should listen to them.

It would be remiss of us to neglect the fact that the referendums on elected regional government are approaching in October. The Electoral Commission has said that it welcomes postal voting in the three northern regions on that occasion, and we need to bear in mind the virtues of consistency between those referendums and what will take place in June. It would be wrong of us not to bear that in mind in the decisions that we take.

Jon Trickett (Hemsworth) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree with the estimate that probably an extra 2 million people would vote under the postal voting system compared with the traditional system? Has it occurred to him that the governing party is clearly on the side of increasing the number of people who vote, whereas the Opposition parties might be seeking tactical advantage by encouraging a diminution in that number?

Mr. Leslie: My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point, and we need to start asking the Opposition parties why they have been using the other place to block what I regard as a perfectly reasonable innovation in our democracy that will ensure that we make it more convenient and easy for people to express their views in our constitution.

Mr. David Watts (St. Helens, North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that we are hearing a lot about what the Electoral Commission and the Lords want, but not a lot about what voters want? Does he also agree that the vast majority of voters in Britain and in those regions want to use their postal votes, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) has just suggested?

Mr. Leslie: The point that my hon. Friend makes stands well. We are elected to the House of Commons, which is where we are accountable to the population for the decisions that we take. If we decide to proceed with

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pilot all-postal voting in four regions, how can we explain to the electorate—our constituents—that we cannot manage to do so because the other place decides to thwart that view?

David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Is it not outright impertinence for those in the unelected Chamber to try to set down voting procedures when the House of Commons has made its decision? Should we not tell them so now?

Mr. Leslie: My hon. Friend makes his point so strongly that it could be heard in the other Chamber as we speak. Indeed, it needs to be heard in the other Chamber. It is about time that we faced up to the fact that this House of Commons has made its view known and repeated its view, and that we now need to resolve the issue. We should not let the issue drift further. The Lords need to back down on this matter.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): It has quite rightly been stated that the matter before us is for this House to decide, because we are the elected House, we represent the people and we represent the electorate out there. Therefore, does my hon. Friend agree that this decision should be taken here, not by an unelected House, and certainly not by the Electoral Commission? I say to the Opposition—I think that my hon. Friend will confirm this—that Chorley has tried the pilot scheme for two years running and has doubled the number of people voting in wards by enfranchising them and allowing them to vote through a postal system. Why should they lose that right?

Mr. Leslie: My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. An important constitutional principle is at stake. The House of Commons has made its view known on a number of occasions, yet the second Chamber has been acting not in a revising capacity, but perhaps in a blocking capacity. He also made another point: if we are not careful and if the other place rows back from all-postal voting in four regions, fewer people might vote by all-postal means than in the 2003 local elections. Some 22 per cent. of the population voted by all-postal means in the 2003 elections. If we were to take the advice of some peers in the other place and drop the north-west, only 20 per cent. of the population would be proceeding in that way, which would obviously be seen as a retrograde step.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): Will the Minister explain why, when his party introduced the Bill that became the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, it introduced in the Lords more than 300 amendments that had not been considered by this House, but which came back to this Chamber in a debate on a guillotine and were barely considered by the Commons at all?

Mr. Leslie: No legislation is enacted unless this House of Commons approves it. As the democratic Chamber, this House of Commons endorses all legislation. If the hon. Lady feels that any legislation has got on to the statute book without this House endorsing it, she can

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write to me and give me her suggestions. I feel that it is quite clear that any basic study of the constitution would conclude that this House needs to make its views known. She may disagree with the length of debate on a particular measure, but no legislation is introduced without this House giving its assent.

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