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5.15 pm

Mr. Miller: To correct the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), I had a bigger turnout and a bigger absolute vote than the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins).

Does the hon. Member for Surrey Heath agree that although the article from The Daily Telegraph is right inasmuch as the voting system is not Labour's to tinker with, it is for this House to make a decision, and this House must take precedence over the other place, where nobody is elected?

Mr. Hawkins: I simply disagree with the hon. Gentleman. We take the view that the whole purpose of having a bicameral legislature is to give both Houses of Parliament a role. What we dislike is this Government's attempt to change the agenda as it suits them. During the debate on the Bill on 16 December, the Minister said—not once, not twice, not three times, but about six times—that the Government would have a third postal pilot. The volte face took place as soon as the Deputy Prime Minister got involved and insisted that both the north-west and Yorkshire and Humber be included. The Government have been completely inconsistent for party political reasons connected with the Deputy Prime Minister's obsession with the forthcoming referendums on regional government.

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Mr. Redwood: Does my hon. Friend agree that the Lords is particularly important when a strong majority party in this House wishes to twist or distort the constitution or the electoral system? That is when the minority interests and parties need a voice. I am delighted that the Lords will provide that; the Government should be ashamed that they will not.

Mr. Hawkins: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend: he is absolutely right.

We can rely on the Electoral Commission's firm view—despite the Minister's attempt to reinterpret it—that the north-west must be ruled out. The Electoral Commission is clear that it has not changed its mind from what it said in December or in January, and sticks to the reasons that it set out previously. That is why those in another place are absolutely right to continue to insist on backing the Electoral Commission. I am confident that in the end the Government will have to give up on this, because otherwise they will lose the Bill altogether. If they do, it will be entirely their own fault.

Mr. Clelland : My hon. Friend the Minister is right to resist the amendments, especially in light of the damage that has already been done to the Bill by the other House. The amendment requiring witness signatures, which will disfranchise thousands of people—mainly the elderly and those with communication difficulties—has been forced on the Government because the other place is using up time which, because of the approaching elections, this House unfortunately does not have, in order to defeat the Bill. Last week, the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister interviewed manufacturers of electoral materials who are telling the Government that time is running out in terms of producing those materials. The House of Lords is using that situation to force amendments on a reluctant Government.

Much comment has been made about the unelected House having undue influence over a matter relating to elections and electors' rights. Some might say that that makes the case for an elected House stronger. I would argue against that, because one can imagine the situation if these decisions were being made by an elected House. It would be much more difficult for this House to get anything through at all—we would have this legislative gridlock time after time. The Government are right to go back to the drawing board on the constitution of the second Chamber. [Interruption.] One of my hon. Friends says, "Abolish them." I am becoming more attracted to that idea as the days go by. We need to consider the powers of the House of the Lords before we start to consider who should sit and exercise them. That is what should have been done in the first place. I hope that we will take this opportunity to do it and that we do not get into this ridiculous situation again.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That was a briefer contribution from the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) than I was expecting, but it was valued nevertheless.

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These ping-pong episodes are among the most unedifying things that we do in the House. As I said when we last debated these matters, it is rare to hear any new arguments on these occasions. However, there is a new element this time, in the form of the letter from the Electoral Commission, which the Minister has chosen to misrepresent to the House, and whose contents he has chosen to ignore. [Hon. Members: "Rubbish!"] Hon. Members may say "Rubbish", but I have the faculty of being able to read. No Member who has read the letter from the Electoral Commission can be in any doubt as to what its conclusions are, and that poses a huge problem for the Government. The Lords have not introduced a killer amendment to the Bill. All that they have done is to make the perfectly reasonable propositions that the Electoral Commission, which the Government set up in order to give advice on electoral matters, should be heard on this matter, and that the Government should not be able to ignore its advice when introducing electoral pilots. Indeed, "pilot" is an inappropriate word to use when the proposal involves nearly half the local authorities in England. That is not a pilot; it is half the country.

We have heard the absurd argument that it would be a disgrace to democracy if there were no all-postal ballot in the north-west. However, we are not told that it would be a disgrace to democracy not to have one in the south-west. We are told that such a ballot is essential in the east midlands, but not the west midlands. [Hon. Members: "Pilots!"] We now hear the word "pilots", but the three pilots that the Minister asked for in the first place are no longer sufficient. The Government, in the form of the Deputy Prime Minister, have determined that he wants half of England to be involved, and that just happens to be the half that lies to the north of the Trent.

I do not understand why the Deputy Prime Minister is so adamant that he should use the majority in the House to push through an electoral reform against the consensus of the political parties represented in the House and against the advice of the Electoral Commission. There was a time when there was a pretence that the Deputy Prime Minister was not guiding this whole affair, but that pretence has been blown apart by the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has written to the Electoral Commission—we know not in what terms—and that he has had a rebuttal from it. The commission will not be persuaded that it should abandon its better judgment in this matter.

Having made a careful study of Yorkshire and Humber, the commission has said that its view has changed, and that it is now prepared to accept that Yorkshire and Humber is an appropriate area. Very well. If that is the case, I accept that as well. I have no wish not to extend this voting experiment to those areas in which it is suitable to do so. Let me tell hon. Members from Yorkshire and Humberside that I am now on their side, because they have the imprimatur of the Electoral Commission.

Mr. Watts: Is it Liberal Democrat policy that the Electoral Commission should be able to overrule the will of Parliament? Also, will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the view of the Liberal Democrat MEP,

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Chris Davies, is that postal voting is for lazy people? Does the hon. Gentleman believe that anyone who wants a postal vote is a lazy person?

Mr. Heath: No, I do not believe that. Frankly, it was an absurd thing for that Member of the European Parliament to say, and I wish he had not said it. Now that I have said that from the Front Bench, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will no longer try to use that argument in evidence against our party's apparent position. It is not the position of our party.

Mr. George Osborne: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heath: In a moment. Let me answer one intervention at a time.

The role of the Electoral Commission is crucial when designing pilot schemes for innovative ways of voting. I would never have had a problem with the Government had they said, "We are not having a pilot scheme for this innovation. We will have a UK-wide all-postal ballot." I would have said, "Okay, let's have a go and see what happens in the European elections." However, that is not what is on offer. We have the absurd pretence that, somehow, the Government are doing as is recommended when we know that they are not and that this is appropriate for one part of the country and not appropriate for the rest.

Mrs. Browning: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Electoral Commission and its chairman are answerable not to Ministers but to the House? I sit on the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission. The commission is called to our meetings to answer questions. If, as a member of that Committee, I discovered that the chairman had made a specific recommendation to the Government vis-à-vis fraud in the north-west and they had ignored it, they would be in very serious trouble with my Committee.

Mr. Heath: Let that be a warning to the Minister, because he is clearly going to be in trouble with the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission.

Hyperbole apart, this is a serious matter. We are discussing this country's electoral system and that should command the respect and agreement, as far as that is possible, of the parties that are contesting those elections. It is simply not right that a party that has a majority in the House—owing to what I think is a corrupt electoral system, and certainly on a minority of the vote—can have its way irrespective of the views of the Electoral Commission that it appointed.

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