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Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab): Did my hon. Friend note that Baroness Hanham drew a comparison in her closing remarks between convenience and easiness in voting and increased turnout in elections? Is it not lamentable that someone who is neither elected nor accountable to anybody has such a contemptible view of democracy?
Mr. Leslie: It would be dangerous indeed if the other place were perceived to be making the democratic process any more difficult. Various people from other parties have made statements that perhaps we should make it more difficult for people to express their opinion and make it harder for them to vote at elections. That is fundamentally anti-democratic and the wrong approach.
Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): Will the Minister explain how this House can give any opinion at all on amendments that are introduced in the other House and then subjected to a guillotine, ensuring that large numbers of them are not discussed at all? The guillotine is the means by which this Government have disfranchised large numbers of people.
Mr. Leslie: The right hon. Gentleman does not have to vote for any measure that he does not support. All measures can be voted on, and if he opposes a measure, he can vote against it. That is the fundamental way in which we make decisions in this House of Commons. We are not talking about guillotines in respect of this Bill; we are talking about a fundamental attempt by the other place to block the will of this House of Commons.
There are many good reasons why we should proceed with a pilot for four regions. We have the resources to do so, and a pilot involving 31 per cent. of the electorate is not excessive. Our decision is clear. We announced on 21 January that we wanted four regions, and the House of Commons ratified that decision on 8 March. It reconfirmed it on 16 March, so why are we debating it again? We have answered questions about fraud and malpractice, and made sure that we have answered questions about supported delivery points, where people can still vote in secret. New changes will aid voters in houses in multiple occupation, and teams of officials can visit such properties with special regard to the problems that can arise. Offences of personation and undue influence over voters are in place, and secrecy
Regional returning officers have made their views very plain indeed, and want to proceed with all-postal voting. The Government want to proceed, and the House of Commons wants to proceed as well, so why are the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats trying to use the other place to block what is evidently the will of the House of Commons? I shall take up the invitation of my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle) and speculate on the reasons why.
The Opposition may be afraid of a high turnout in the June elections, and therefore oppose all-postal voting in the pilot. It may be the age-old tactic of opportunism, with the Opposition seeking to derail the local and European elections in June. If that is the true reason why the Opposition are behaving in that way, that is a very dangerous game indeed. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) and, in particular, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) must justify their use of the other place to block the will of the House of Commons. How am I to explain to my constituents in Yorkshire that, no matter how many people want all-postal voting and no matter who they vote for at those elections, they cannot have such a system because the minority parties, using the other place, have sought to block the will of the House of Commons?
Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): The Minister referred to higher turnout and more people voting. Why is it not possible to have a nationwide postal vote? If there are pilot schemes for half the country, why are they in the north? What will the Minister say to people outside the House who will regard that as cynical manipulation?
Mr. Leslie: The hon. Gentleman should know that we have debated the subject in the Chamber on numerous occasions, and he should be aware of the rationale for the Government's four-region proposal, which was supported by the Commons on a number of occasions. The selection partly reflects the advice of the Electoral Commission on the ranking of suitable regions, but takes into account the fact that in October we will hold referendums on elected regional government. It would be daft to ignore that.
Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): My hon. Friend mentioned the regional referendums in October and the use of all-postal ballots. Will he confirm that we will not necessarily have to accept the unhelpful amendment on regional referendums agreed in the House last week making extra requirements for witness signature? In the postal ballots in my area of Gateshead, we had no such requirement. The turnout was higher than it was in areas where the requirement was made, and the Electoral Commission gave us a clean bill of health regarding fraudwe had no problems of that kind. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend can give me that assurance.
Mr. George Osborne (Tatton) (Con): Labour Members seem to suggest that we are against high turnouts, but I dare that say every single Opposition Member was elected on a higher turnout than every single Labour Member. The Minister suggests that there is some mystery about why the Lords keep sending the Bill back and why the House of Commons cannot have its way. Will he address the Electoral Commission's letter of yesterdaynot a month ago, not two months ago, but yesterdayin which it continues to say that it does not recommend holding postal votes in the north-west? The Government set up the Electoral Commission to guard the integrity of the electoral process. Will he address the specific concerns of the Electoral Commission and tell us why he thinks that it has got this wrong?
Mr. Leslie: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. I have the letter from Sam Younger, the chairman of the Electoral Commission. It does not contain the words that the hon. Gentleman attributed to itthat we should definitely not go ahead with the north-west. The Electoral Commission simply says that its views on all these matters have not changed from the previous occasion. We know very well that the Electoral Commission has said that the north-west is potentially suitable.
The hon. Gentleman should be aware that the commission has reiterated its view. He knows that we disagree about a number of regions, and I do not demur from that, but it is important to remember that the Electoral Commission has reiterated that there are a number of regions that it considered "potentially suitable". The commission underlines the fact that it is for the Government, Parliament and the House of Commons to make decisions about what happens and which regions should be selected. It is not for the commission to say yes or no to particular regions. That is in the letter.
Mr. Leslie: I can only sit at the feet of the master of selective quotation. That is certainly not what I understand from the Electoral Commission. I have said to the hon. Gentleman that we disagree with the Electoral Commission about its view of the number, the quantum, the scale of regions to proceed with, but that is an entirely different matter from which particular regions are selected. The Electoral Commission underlined the fact that it had a category of regions that were "potentially suitable", which include Yorkshire and the north-west. It has not changed its view. That remains the case. It is therefore open to us to recommend that we should proceed in four regions.
We have been round these arguments before and I do not think many of the issues have changed. What has changed is the fact that the Opposition parties seek to justify using the blocking powers of the other place to thwart the will of the House of Commons. How can the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, for example, call himself a Liberal Democrat but use the House of Lords as he has done to thwart the House of Commons' views and decisions? He should address that point when he speaks. [Interruption.]