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Mr. Kaufman: The hon. Gentleman is not standing up tonight to say that he wants to stick to what the Electoral Commission recommended, according to his version of what it recommended. That was the position two weeks ago, but the House of Lords has sent back this amendment saying that it is appropriate to have three tests. How can he shift now? Well, I know howit is because that argument has been snatched away from him, just as his seat is about to be snatched away from him.
Mr. Hawkins: The right hon. Gentleman clearly has not been following every stage of the procedure. As the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) pointed out, the Bill has been amended since the earlier stage.
We have sought, in another place, to be reasonable with the Government. We have offered them what the right hon. Gentleman's own Minister was putting forward as recently as 16 December in debates on the Bill. At that time the Government were sayingnot once, not twice, but many timesthat they wanted three regions. It is the right hon. Gentleman's party that has changed its preference from three regions to four, and that is one of the reasons why the other place is so determined to stick to its view.
I was responding to the hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham). The Electoral Commission expressed its fear that any allegations that might be proceeded with might coincide with the elections. As recently as 23 March, the commission has said that those considerations have not changed. The hon. Gentleman does not have to agree with its judgment; all I am saying is that I do.
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): As the hon. Gentleman is a lawyer, he should perhaps reflect on what he has said. He suggested that speeches by Lord Greaves constituted evidence. How on earth can that be so?
Mr. Hawkins: The hon. Gentleman may not agree with Lord Greaves, who represents a different party in another place. I have simply said that I have read the noble Lord's speeches, and they strike me as a pretty compelling argument. The fact that the hon. Gentleman does not agree with them does not mean that his judgment is any better than the noble Lord's.
Sir Nicholas Winterton: I have listened to the debate, and while there are good and sound arguments on both sides, does my hon. Friend not think that it is the action of a knave to deride opinions held sincerely by people who disagree with those arguments? Some Conservative Members who have fought many elections believe that merely making voting more convenient is not the way to generate a greater and more genuine interest in politics. Does my hon. Friend not agree that a more genuine interest in politics is very much part of this argument?
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): If, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) has said, there are no outstanding cases of electoral fraud in the north-west as a result of postal ballots, and if the hon. Gentleman now acceptsas I assume he doesthat three pilots would be acceptable, what possible objection can he have to a fourth?
Mr. Hawkins: The hon. Gentleman, who used to be a Minister, knows that his Government set up this Electoral Commission, and it has not changed its mind. However well I may get on with the hon. Member for Leigh, I will not necessarily prefer his opinion to that of the Electoral Commission, on the north-west or anything else. We must be guided by the experts in the Electoral Commission that the Government set up. We are not going to make much progress if Government Back Benchers want only to deride other opinions. I take the view that the other place is absolutely right to stick to its guns, and I hope that it continues to do so. We welcome the fact that the Government have made another small concession towards greater security of the poll, but we are certain that we are right to stick to three electoral regions. I hope that the other place also continues to do so.
Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): It is sad that we have gone back to having a slanging match, when what is needed is some cool thought and cool persuasion of the House of Lords to act sensibly in this matter.
We have now reached a position whereby returning officers in the north-west region will face almost impossible difficulties. In the past, most of them have been able to organise general elections efficiently with relatively short notice, and I am sure that they have been preparing since Christmas for an all-postal ballot. Both of those tasks can be managed perfectly efficiently.
Unfortunately, if the Lords hold to their proposals, we are now going to have a hybrid. Everyone has the chance to go to a polling station, but many people in the north-west will be annoyed that the House of Lords has thwarted their opportunity to have a postal ballot automatically. What will they then do? They will apply, as they have every right to do, for a postal vote over the next six or seven weeks. Instead of most people going to the polling station and just 3 or 4 per cent. voting by post, anything up to 25 or 30 per cent. of people will apply for postal votes. That will produce circumstances that are extremely difficult for returning officers to cope with. All the polling stations have to be in place, but so will most of the postal mechanisms, producing the worst of all worlds.
Conservative Members say that they are concerned about fraud. There may have been some fraud with postal votes, but the fraud has been in the traditional, not the experimental areas, and has affected a relatively small number of votes. It might have been better to take earlier action to reduce the possibility of such fraud. As the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) said, steps were taken in Northern Ireland to achieve that, but it is not an option at this particular moment. My plea to the House of Lords is to make certain that we can have an all-postal ballot, which can be supervised as efficiently as any other system to reduce fraud.
As it stands now, people can apply for a postal vote to be sent to any named address. That makes it possible for people to collect such votes, which they should not be doing. Under an all-postal vote, however, those votes go to the address on the electoral register, which provides a very important safeguard. In fact, an all-postal ballot makes an election safer and less likely to result in fraud than one in which law-abiding citizens are put to the inconvenience of having to go to the polling station, when those who want to perpetrate fraud or malpractice can get postal votes.
I repeat my strong plea to the House of Lords closely to examine the current position. If the Lords want to eliminate or reduce fraud, the most effective way of doing so is to have an all-postal ballot in the north-west of England. That is clearly what most of my constituents want, and if the Lords try to deny them that opportunity it will spur many of them to secure postal votes, which will create the worst possible administrative nightmare for electoral registration officers.