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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. May I say to the House as a whole that it would be better if the debate were conducted with one person speaking at a time?
The benefits of all-postal voting are crystal clear. It brings convenience and ease of voting to electors in those regions. We are talking merely about piloting. We should pilot in those four regions. The arguments are clear. I hope that the House stands firm in its view and supports the proposal for four regions, and I urge hon. Members to disagree with the Lords in their amendment.
Mr. Hawkins: We are going around this track for the fifth or sixth time now, but there are always some new developments. The Government have conceded one of our main concerns about the anti-fraud measure of requiring a witness signature. I am sorry that they refused to concede on the sending of receipts by returning officers, but I suspect that the House will need to return to that in years to come, and I fear that, as the Electoral Reform Society has warned, the incidence of electoral fraud will require a reconsideration of that.
Anyone who had heard only the Minister's speech this afternoon might mistakenly think that the Government's views on this matter were entirely clear and had never changed, but in fact the Government have changed their mind from three pilot regions to four, at the insistence, as we know, of the Deputy Prime Minister, who has been working the issue by remote control throughout the passage of the Bill.
The main issue this afternoon, however, is the Government's refusal to trust the Electoral Commission, which they themselves set up. The Government have tried to bully their own Electoral Commission, and they have done so specifically and especially in the person of the Deputy Prime Minister. We always suspected that his involvement in this area
We have now all seen the letters that the chairman of the Electoral Commission, Sam Younger, sent to the Minister on 4 March, and to the Deputy Prime Minister yesterday. Significantly, what we have not seen are the letters that Ministers, specifically the Deputy Prime Minister, have sent to the Electoral Commission. I challenge the Minister to place in the Library the letters that all Ministers have sent to the Electoral Commission, because before the matter returns to another place, we all need to have a full picture. I also challenge the Minister, as I did last week, when he declined to respond, to place in the Library the minutes of all meetings that any Minister in this Government has attended with any returning officers. We need a full picture. At the moment we are seeing the responses of the chairman of the Electoral Commission to letters that we have not seen.
We also fear that Labour has been leaning on returning officersnot only in the Deputy Prime Minister's home area of Yorkshire and the Humberto seek to intimidate them into changing their views. It is not merely Conservative Members who express these views. As the noble Lord Rennard, speaking for the Liberal Democrats, said:
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman referred in his opening remarks to incidents of fraud. Would he like to give some examples of where such incidents have taken place, because as my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) pointed out earlier, in Gateshead council, where the ballot took place without the need for witness signatures, there was no evidence whatever of fraud. On the other hand, in Newcastle council, where the witness signature was required, 6,000 people were disfranchised because of the lack of a witness signature. Does he think that that is fair?
Mr. Hawkins: I do not criticise the hon. Gentleman because I know that he has many responsibilities in the House, but I do not think that he took part in the earlier debates on this matter. Had he done so, he would be aware that I have referred at great length to the examples of fraud given by the noble Lord Greaves, not just on one but on several occasions when the matter was debated in another place. I have incorporated my concerns, which are set out fully by the Electoral Commission in its report, in my various speeches, so I respectfully refer the hon. Gentleman to what the Lord Greaves has said. The main concerns about fraud were in the north-west. The Electoral Commission says that one of its concerns about the north-west is that possible prosecutions for fraud might coincide with the period of
Andy Burnham (Leigh) (Lab): Again, the hon. Gentleman comments on the north-west and the allegations made by Lord Greaves. Will he clear up the matter: has the Crown Prosecution Service taken forward any of the allegations made in Pendle?
Mr. Hawkins: I do not know specifically about Pendle, but, as the hon. Gentleman would know if he had listened to earlier debates, Lord Greaves did not refer only to Pendle, and I, like him, gave about 10 different examples of areas of the north-west where fraud had been alleged. The Government's own Electoral Commission has said that it is not prepared to endorse the suggestion that the north-west should be a pilot because of concerns about fraud, and yesterday's letter from Sam Younger, the chairman of the Electoral Commission, repeats that point.
Mr. Hawkins: I will not give way again. I simply refer the hon. Gentleman to yesterday's letter from Sam Younger, which is absolutely clear, no matter how the Minister tries to reinterpret it. In December, the Electoral Commission said that the north-west is inappropriate; it repeated the point in January; and it made it again as recently as yesterday.
Mr. David Watts (St. Helens, North) (Lab): Why does the hon. Gentleman take the view that we should take so much notice of the Electoral Commission, when the Lords and he rejected its suggestion on the verification of voting? He is keen to take notice of the Electoral Commission when he wants to. Why did he not take notice on both occasions?
Mr. Hawkins: The Government must explain why they are ignoring their own Electoral Commission. It was not us who set it up. Having listened to the Minister this afternoon, one might think that it is Government policy to ignore the fact that we have a bicameral legislature. The Government want a one-party, one-Chamber state, where they can ram through their views without debate.
In fairness, many of the noble Lords and Baronesses who have spoken about electoral matters in debates on this Bill have many more years of electoral experience than the Minister. Many of them are in another place precisely because they have long experience as councillors and party agents. [Interruption.] The Minister says that noble Lords and Baronesses have no electoral mandate, but many of them have been around in politics for a lifetime and sit in another place because of their experience. [Interruption.] He should recognise that it is a bit rich for somebody who only arrived in this House in 1997 to criticise as having no mandate those from whichever party who have been appointed to another place because of their political experience.
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it not the case that every Member of this House, irrespective of age and experience, is of equal status?
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Hon. Members are, of course, of equal status, but they may have different experience in different ways. I do not want to get involved in a matter of debatefar worse things have been said in the House, and we can always seek to improve the standard of exchange. While I am on the subject, I want to hear less noise and more from the person who has the Floor of the House at the time.
Mr. Hawkins: We must examine what independent commentators say about what the Government are up to in trying to railroad the Bill through. I refer any hon. Members who have not seen them yet to the views expressed by the distinguished and senior home affairs correspondent of The Daily Telegraph, Mr. Phillip Johnston, on Monday of this week. In a well-observed column headed, "Now they want to abolish polling day", Mr. Johnston says: