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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): I beg to move, That this House insists in its disagreement to Lords amendment 1F to Commons amendment 1C, but proposes an amendment in lieu thereof.
The House of Commons continues to believe that four regions must be included in the Bill, and that these regions should be the north-east, the east midlands, Yorkshire and the north-west. Earlier this afternoon, the House of Lords voted by a narrow margin to yet again prevent convenient all-postal voting in the north-west of England. Their Lordships voted by only 136 to 130 votes to drop the north-west from the proposals put by the Government and the House of Commons.
It is worth noting that the majority of Cross-Bench peers voting this afternoon voted with the Government against the peculiar alliance between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. Interestingly, there is a majority among life peers in favour of keeping the north-west in a list of four regions. The Government were defeated on that occasion by the votes of the hereditary peers.
Let us not forget that the House of Commons has voted for four regions on four separate occasions alreadyon 8 March, 16 March, 24 March and yesterday, 29 March. Four times the House has expressed its view. There is no doubt about the decision by elected Members of Parliament.
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath) (Con): The Minister continues to speak of the House of Commons, without recognising the fact that he is speaking about only his own party. As I have pointed out to him, independent commentators have said that important matters concerning elections, such as this, should be agreed between the parties. The Government should not involve the other place in a battle when there is no all-party consensus on what they are trying to ram through.
Mr. Leslie: The hon. Gentleman clearly has a different understanding of our democracy if he thinks that we should have unanimity among all parties on all matters. The House of Commons makes its decisions on the basis of the majority of votes. We are accountable to our constituents for the decisions that we make, as the hon. Gentleman knows. The House of Lords has powers to revise and amend, which it often uses with authority and experience. On the Bill, we have listened to many of the Lords' concerns. We have conceded, for example, on the declaration of identity, which some of my hon. Friends will remember. We have allowed that provision to be in the Bill, so it is not the case that we have been unwilling to listen or to revise the Bill. The time has come for the
Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): Is it not peculiar that the Conservative party is enunciating a new doctrine, whereby the will of the House of Commons should not prevail if only the government party emphasises that will? In view of the fact that the Conservative party railroaded the Single European Act through on a guillotine and the poll tax through with only its support, when did that new constitutional doctrine arise? The Conservative spokesman who advocates the new doctrine may want to go to the House of Lords pretty soon himself.
Mr. Leslie: It would be somewhat cruel to exacerbate the Conservative spokesman's difficulties on the latter point, but it is odd that the Conservative party has scraped the barrel to the extent that it is resorting to requesting unanimity on such issues. The Conservative spokesman feels that that is the way to proceed, but the majority of elected hon. Members in this House disagree with him, and quite right too.
Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): In a previous debate in which the democratic House was attempting to have a democratic say on how we run our democracy, I asked my hon. Friend the Minister to speculate on why both main Opposition parties seem hellbent on making it as inconvenient as possible to vote. Has he had a chance during the intervening period to speculate further on why we are experiencing such resistance from those who may be afraid of high turnouts?
Mr. Leslie: The fear of high turnouts may well be a reason for the resistance. The alliance between the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats is peculiar. The phrase "liberal democracy" rings hollow when one thinks that the Liberal Democrats are happy to use and abuse the powers of the other place. Although the Liberal Democrat party is a minority party in this House, it wants to abuse the majority power in the other place to thwart the view of the democratically elected majority in this place.
Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab): If one examines the Chamber this evening, the majority of Labour Members represent constituencies in the north-west, whereas few, if any, Opposition Members who represent constituencies in the north-west are present. We want to maximise turnout in the election to enable as many people as possible to vote, and we therefore support the inclusion of the north-west in the pilots.
Mr. Leslie: My hon. Friend is right, and he knows that he is accountable to his constituents for the decisions that he takes. The hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) is one of the few remaining north-west Opposition Members on the Back Benches, and he may speak for the Conservatives in the north-west, but I hope that he recognises that we are entering uncharted constitutional waters.
Today, the exchanges between both Houses have matched the current record for disagreements, and if peers in the other place were to resist the fifth decision by the Commons, they would overturn the will of the elected House in a completely unprecedented way, taking our constitution into uncharted waters in a manner not seen since detailed records began after the second world war. Can the hon. Gentleman justify the other place's abuse of its powers?
Mr. George Osborne (Tatton) (Con): The Minister says that 130 peers supported the Government in the vote in the House of Lords. Can he tell me how many Labour peers and how many Cross-Bench peers are in the House of Lords? If this is uncharted constitutional territory, the least the Labour Whips in the Lords could do is get their troops out.
Mr. Leslie: An awful lot of Conservative peers did not vote in the Division in the other place. It is interesting that the vote is becoming closer and closer as they realise that their argument for overturning this House of Commons becomes weaker and weaker. The time has now come for the other place and Opposition Members to recognise that they have tested the boundaries of revision and amendment to their limits. Their activities are becoming obstructive and vexatious. I hope that the House will now recognise that the issues are immensely simple. This is a matter of judgment as to which regions we pick to pilot all-postal voting in the June elections. We feel, and this House of Commons believes, that four regions are best.
Lady Hermon (North Down) (UUP): May I make a suggestion to the Minister that is genuinely intended to be helpful? Vote stealing is a very serious offence from which we in Northern Ireland have suffered for generations. To their credit, this Government introduced the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002, a wonderful piece of legislation that was taken through, to the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland, by the Minister for Work, the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne). That Act included specific identifiers to eradicate fraud in relation to postal voting. Will the Minister take it awayI will give him my copyto see whether he can engage in some joined-up thinking with the Northern Ireland Office to reassure those of us who are genuinely concerned about postal voting giving rise to fraud that the identifiers that were used so successfully in Northern Ireland could be used in the north of England?
Mr. Leslie: The hon. Lady makes a constructive offer: I will certainly take her copy from her after the debate. We have already made several changes to the Bill to improve our ability to counter fraud and malpractice. Our amendment not only reasserts that four regions are best, but helps to bolster still further the anti-fraud measures in the Bill by specifying that the declaration of identity accompanying the ballot paper must advise the voter that the ballot paper should be completed outside the presence of any other person, or, in the case of voters who require assistancefor example, those with visual impairmentonly in accordance with the advice that we will provide to returning officers. Yet again, the amendment improves anti-fraud measures. It underlines