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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett), although I would like to do so with slightly less frequency on this subject. I suggested yesterday evening that we were experiencing a version of "Groundhog Day", but I retract that comment because according to my recollection of the film, things eventually got better. Unfortunately, we seem to be making no progress with the Bill whatsoever, due to the Government's intransigence.

The facts of the case remain exactly as they always were. The Government wish to have pilot schemes—I stress the phrase "pilot schemes"—for all-postal voting, and they have considerable support, certainly from Liberal Democrats, in doing so. They said that they wanted three regions, and felt that that was an appropriate scale for the trial. That is exactly what they have in the Bill, before they amend it this evening. They set up the Electoral Commission some time ago in order to give advice, and they sought its advice on which and how many regions would be suitable. We realise that they were disappointed with the commission's initial response, which was that only two regions could be positively recommended.

Mr. Watts: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman intervenes frequently in these debates. I wish that he would actually make a speech—then we could have all the interventions rolled into one. Let us have this evening's intervention.

Mr. Watts: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The essence of his argument seems to be that the

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commission should override the democratic will of this House of Commons. He was quite happy to overrule the commission in respect of countersigning, but he seems less willing to do so when it comes to postal votes. Does that have something to do with the elections for Liberal Democrat-controlled councils in Liverpool?

Mr. Heath: No, it does not. If the hon. Gentleman is going to intervene several times in each of these debates, I wish that he would invent some new interventions. Answering the same one time and again is getting rather tedious.

Mr. George Howarth rose—

Mr. Heath: Some Members would rather that we did not have the independent arbiter of the Electoral Commission, but why do we have it? It is in order to avoid ugly confrontations between the parties on matters on which there should be consensus and agreement. Indeed, that is exactly why we have the boundary commission. Of course, we remember the last Government who tried to overrule the boundary commission—it was Jim Callaghan in 1969 who tried to gerrymander the constituencies. That was a huge mistake, as even Labour party members now accept. What prevented that Government from doing so was the constitutional role of the other place. That is the clear precedent for what is happening today.

Mr. Howarth rose—

Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Heath: The hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) has intervened many times, but I have not heard from the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall).

Mr. Pickthall: Does the hon. Gentleman realise what the Liberal Democrats, in collusion with the other lot, are trying to achieve? In effect, they are trying to reduce the potential turnout in the north-west by half. He understands the electoral arithmetic as well as anybody else. He understands that the British National party is more likely to gain seats on a low turnout than on a high turnout. How would the Liberal Democrats square their conscience if their effort to achieve their aims returned one or two BNP Members of the European Parliament under that voting system? To paraphrase Sir Thomas More, it is one thing to lose one's soul for the whole world, but for Liverpool?

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman did come to an end—eventually. I am still—

Mr. Howarth: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman said that I have intervened many times in this debate. For the sake of accuracy, I should point out that I have intervened once.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: That is not a point of order for the Chair.

Mr. Heath: I was referring the serial debate that we are having on this subject. I shall of course apologise if

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I am incorrect in saying that the hon. Gentleman has intervened during the previous occasions on which we have debated these matters.

Mr. Howarth: For the sake of accuracy, may I say that I have never intervened in a debate on this matter previously? The hon. Gentleman clearly has made a mistake. I accept that he did not do so with any ill intent.

Mr. Heath: I certainly did not do so and I apologise unreservedly to the hon. Gentleman. I sought only to introduce a new face into the proceedings.

Mr. Howarth rose—

Mr. Heath: Does the hon. Gentleman now want to intervene substantively?

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. May I gently suggest that we get on with the debate?

Mr. Heath: Let us return to the genuine issues involved.

Mr. Andrew Turner : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heath: May I just make some progress? I will let the hon. Gentleman intervene later.

The debate is now simply about whether we should have the three regions that the Minister said were his intention. For 90 per cent. of the proceedings on the Bill, that was exactly what he wanted. He was disappointed when he got only two. Like the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), he was apparently unaware of the later advice of the Electoral Commission. It said that Yorkshire and Humberside could be added. My noble Friends tabled an amendment to precisely that effect in another place and that is what is now in the Bill. It was only when the Minister had three regions that he decided to add another to his shopping list.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Heath: In a moment.

The hon. Member for West Lancashire asked me why we were trying to reduce the options for the north-west, but of course we are not. I want a sensible answer from the Government and the Back Benchers who are here this evening—I notice that many of them are from the north-west or Yorkshire and Humberside—to why, if this is so imperative for the north-west, it is not for the south-west. If it is so imperative for the east midlands, why is it not for the west midlands? If it is so imperative for the north of England, why is it not for the south of England, or Scotland or Wales? The Government have failed to answer that question.

The Government simply say that we have to increase turnout, but only in those regions where we choose to increase turnout. I have said all the way along the line that had the Government come forward with a proposal for universal postal voting across the whole country, I could have understood that. That would have had a

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logic to it. There is a logic to doing it across the whole country and there is a logic to having pilots. There is not a logic for postal voting in areas that are not recommended by the Electoral Commission; in one half of England, one third of the United Kingdom and not the rest.

Mr. Andrew Turner: The hon. Gentleman suggested one reason. The hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) suggested another and entirely different reason for the change. It was a repetition of one suggested by his noble Friend Lord Hoyle in the House of Lords. It is the novel doctrine that if one does not like the anticipated outcome of an election, one changes the system. That is exactly what the hon. Member for West Lancashire suggested.

Mr. Pickthall: No.

Mr. Turner: He denies it, but he said that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) would have on his conscience a success for the British National party if he did not allow the measure through. I would like to know whether that is the doctrine of the Government or merely the doctrine of a few extraordinary Government Back Benchers.

Mr. Heath: It is another of the spurious arguments that we have had introduced into this debate on a number of occasions. I do not think that it is the Government's official position.

Andy Burnham : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heath: No. The hon. Gentleman has intervened an awful lot in this debate. We have really had enough of the hon. Gentleman on this subject.

If I had heard any logical explanation for the Government's position, I might have been more persuaded of the validity of it, but the genuine case was more than clearly exhibited earlier. When the Minister was introducing the Government's case, who were sitting on either side of him? We had the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister for Local and Regional Government and the right hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney). They are the ones who are running this show, not the Department for Constitutional Affairs. What an excuse for a Department it is. It cannot make its own decisions or do what it believes is right. It is led by the nose by another Department. What a disgraceful position for the Minister and, even more, for the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, who—surprisingly—appears to have no interest in the legislation.

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