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Mr. David Watts (St. Helens, North) (Lab): This has nothing to do with fraud, as we have been given no evidence whatsoever that fraud will increase as a result of postal voting, nor any details of prosecutions arising from the alleged fraud that we are told about. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is more to do with saving the skins of Liverpool Liberal Democrat councillors than the democratic process?

Mr. Leslie: I cannot fathom why the Opposition parties have joined together in this strange way—we can only speculate on their motives. I now feel very strongly that all-postal voting is no more prone to fraudulence than conventional voting. We have been given no evidence for that—for example, a record of more convictions having occurred under all-postal voting in the pilots that have taken place than occurred under the conventional arrangements. Opposition Members have been grasping at straws to find reasons to oppose making voting more convenient. We want to make voting easier because we know that there are difficulties with turnout, particularly in local and European elections, and we are simply proposing that we find a way to ensure that we improve engagement in our democratic process. That is why we picked the four regions.

Mr. Kaufman: I am sorry to disturb my hon. Friend again. One can completely respect the views advanced by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon). However, although the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats talk about the potential for fraud, the Lords reasons say nothing whatever about it. What is more, the Lords reasons changed all the time. When the provision was sent back to us two weeks ago, the Lords reason for rejecting it was

However, their reason for doing so today is

The House of Lords is equalling the Liberal Democrats' hypocrisy—that is a massive achievement.

7.45 pm

Mr. Leslie: As usual, my right hon. Friend has his eye on the detail. He is right that fraud did not appear in the reasons on this occasion. We have been reasonable with the other place and responded to their worries about fraud and malpractice. We have bent over backwards to make changes to the Bill, including the concession that has disappointed many of my hon. Friends. They are disappointed about the inclusion of the declaration of identity to be a witness to the signature. The Electoral Commission advised that we should move towards a single signature arrangement. However, we made the

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concession, which proves that we have tried our best to listen to some of the more reasonable objections from the other place.

Mr. Hawkins rose—

Mr. Leslie: The partisan decision of Opposition parties to persist with preventing the House of Commons from having its way is ridiculous, and the hon. Gentleman's words will probably prove that.

Mr. Hawkins: The Minister suggests that there is no evidence of a risk of fraud. However, he has often been reminded by me and other hon. Members of the Electoral Reform Society's views about the Bill. It has repeatedly said to all hon. Members who are involved that the risk of large-scale fraud now exists for the first time in more than 100 years.

Since we are considering clarity, will the Minister respond to the challenge that I have issued three times to the Government to publish all the letters that the Deputy Prime Minister and other Ministers sent to the Electoral Commission? We have seen the Electoral Commission's letters but we have not seen the Deputy Prime Minister's threatening letters. Will the Minister publish them?

Mr. Leslie: The hon. Gentleman will find letters from the Government to the Electoral Commission in the Library. I am sure that he will be delighted to read them. He is grasping at straws because he simply cites the views of others rather than producing hard evidence of malpractice. Has he offered the House details of prosecutions and convictions? Where is the hard evidence? He has anecdote, hearsay and allegations but no evidence that all-postal voting is any more prone to fraudulence than conventional arrangements. We have dealt firmly and completely with the argument about fraud.

The arguments are now focusing on what the public prefer. They want the opportunity for all-postal voting. They clearly expressed that by voting in greater numbers in places where we piloted the scheme in local elections. We have the resources for four regions to do that. We know that the regional returning officers desperately want all-postal voting and that they want a decision to be made now. They would face a considerable challenge if the Conservative and Liberal Democrat alliance forced them to go back on their preparations, find the polling stations in the new ward boundaries that the boundary changes have created and recruit the staff to conduct the elections. It would be a considerable challenge if the north-west were forced to revert to a conventional arrangement. I hope that Conservative Members and Liberal Democrat Members will reconsider and reflect on the fact that the House—reasonably but determinedly—wants to ensure that four regions are included in the Bill.

Important principles are at stake. Of course, there is a wider question about the elected House of Commons making decisions. However, it is also important that, having thoroughly examined all the aspects of the Bill and made concessions when necessary, we have the

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opportunity to take forward the decision that the provision for four regions is right. I hope that hon. Members will agree that it is time to settle the matter.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Leslie: No, it is now time to make a decision and insist on our disagreement with the Lords amendment.

Mr. Hawkins : The Minister still does not recognise the fatal weakness in the Government's case, which is that as recently as 16 December, on this same Bill, the Government said not once or twice but many times that they only intended there to be three pilot regions. As we know, the Electoral Commission originally recommended only two. The Government said that they intended to bring forward plans for a third, and they said it not once but many times. Then, suddenly, out of the blue, only five days after this Minister said that he intended to bring forward plans for a third region, they announced that they wanted there to be four. They wanted the whole of England north of the Trent to be chosen, and, for their partisan party political reasons, all of the areas that face referendums later on regional government. That is why the Deputy Prime Minister has been so obsessed by this matter.

The Government have had the benefit of the advice of their Electoral Commission—they set it up. As my noble Friend Baroness Hanham said:

We have had this debate many times. This is about round eight of the contest. One thing has changed, which is that the Government are finding it difficult to get their own peers out to support their policy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) pointed out, with the decreased majority in the other place, had the Government managed to get all the Labour peers to vote earlier, the result might have been different. I understand that it is difficult for the Government to get their own peers to support much of their policy, not just on this Bill but on many other matters. If the Government's problem is not so much the battle between the two Houses but their whipping in the other place, that really is serious.

Mr. Watts: Can the hon. Gentleman clarify what the Opposition's position is on this issue? He seems to be saying that the Electoral Commission should decide which election system should be used in each election. If that is the case, he seems to be overriding the responsibility of the House of Commons to make the final decision. Can he clarify why he believes that it is acceptable to run a pilot in the north-west for regional government, but it is not acceptable to use it for the European Parliament and local elections?

Mr. Hawkins: The hon. Gentleman is making the same sort of mistake that the Minister made a few moments ago. He is talking about the Electoral

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Commission's recommendations as if the Electoral Commission had not given compelling reasons in its report, repeated by the chairman of the Electoral Commission as recently as in his letter of 24 March, as to why its concerns about the north-west remain strong. The Government set up the Electoral Commission. They are saying in terms, several times, as we debated last night, that their views about the north-west have not changed.

Andy Burnham (Leigh) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is again repeating something that is not in the Electoral Commission's report, as he and other Opposition Members did yesterday. Let me quote to him the executive summary of the Electoral Commission's report on this issue—[Interruption.] He should just listen to this:

Where in that quote does the commission rule out an all-postal pilot in the north-west?

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