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8.15 pm

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): Whatever the hon. Gentleman may think of my right hon. Friends the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Local and Regional Government, they are elected Members of this House, unlike the hereditary peers next door—the marquesses and barons—who are overruling the primacy of this House. That is all that this argument is about.

Mr. Heath: If one does not like the unelected House of Lords, one should do something about it. One should

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not shilly-shally because one is afraid of what the Prime Minister will say. One should not ignore the views of one's Back Benchers because one is not convinced that one can get it through the other place. One should legislate. Until the hon. Lady is prepared to persuade her right hon. Friends in the Cabinet that it is time that we had a proper, democratic House of Lords, she has no reason to argue anything else.

The hon. Lady talks about primacy. In this instance, she is talking not about the primacy of the House of Commons, but the primacy of the Labour party. It does not like it when an argument is made against it.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD): Has my hon. Friend noticed that it is the Deputy Prime Minister who has resisted all attempts in Cabinet to introduce an elected second Chamber?

Mr. Heath: Yes, the Deputy Prime Minister is the guilty man. His attempts at bullying on the issue are well documented. The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) was wrong to say that the letter to the Electoral Commission had not been put in the Library: it was there on Thursday. [Interruption.] I see that the hon. Gentleman has a copy now.

The most remarkable aspect of the debate is that the Bill was introduced in the last Session because it was so urgent that it needed to be in place by the beginning of the year.

Shona McIsaac: It was blocked.

Mr. Heath: It was not blocked. The Government did nothing with it. I have the chronology of events in my hand. The Bill was introduced into this House on 17 September, but it was months before it was even debated in the other place. We are now told that the returning officers are in a terrible position, but that is because of the Government's actions—[Interruption.] What did the Deputy Prime Minister write to the chairman of the Electoral Commission—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. May we have fewer interventions from sedentary positions? I am having difficulty hearing the hon. Gentleman who is addressing the House.

Mr. Heath: What the Deputy Prime Minister wrote to the chairman of the Electoral Commission on 22 March shows the regard in which he holds that body. He wanted a revised opinion and, after several paragraphs about what he wanted the commission to give an opinion on—in the hope that he would get something helpful to his position—he wrote:


The Deputy Prime Minister asked for a revised opinion from the Electoral Commission, giving it fewer than 24 hours to make a considered response.

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Mr. Leslie: If the hon. Gentleman were being fair, he would recognise that the letter was a response to the amendment tabled by the odd alliance in the other place, which suggested that we should abrogate this decision to the Electoral Commission. In that case, it seems only reasonable to ask the Electoral Commission its view of that amendment.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman may think that it is reasonable—[Hon. Members: "Ah."] Hon. Members say "Ah" as though they had considered the matter carefully and considered it an outrage. Were the Government really expecting reasoned advice from the Electoral Commission in only five hours on a matter that had been before the Government since September last year?

Mr. Hancock : My hon. Friend has been generous in giving way. He has made a compelling case for the inclusion of the south and the south-west in the pilot scheme, but the Government have resisted it. During the many debates on this issue, has he come across a compelling reason for denying us that opportunity while including the north-west?

Mr. Heath: The most irritating thing about the whole debate is that the Government have never given us their reasons for doing that, apart from the fact—

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Heath: I shall not give way any more. I have already spoken for long enough. I have given way far more than any other Member and there have been enough interventions.

The point—

Ian Stewart (Eccles) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman has just heard the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) say that he will not give way again.

Mr. Heath: By saying so, I disappointed my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh)—but never mind, I am not going to take any more interventions.

We have never been offered any sensible arguments for the choice of the north-west over the rest of the country. All we have heard is the Government's assertion that they will have their way in the north of England. They have not tried to address the issues for the south of England, Wales and Scotland.

In the other place, Lord Filkin argued that the choice would somehow improve the quality of information to be gathered from the pilots to inform future decisions. Having worked for Lord Filkin in local government, I have some respect for him—

Mr. Leslie: What about me?

Mr. Heath: I shall have respect for the hon. Gentleman when he stands up to his colleagues and actually does something sensible about the Bill.

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Lord Filkin's argument was that the value of the pilots would be greatly improved if the north-west were included. However, the reverse is the case. If we are seriously holding pilots to improve election technique, what better control could there be than to hold all-postal elections in Yorkshire and Humber on one side of the Pennines and in the north-west on the other side? We could then compare the two. We could look at the problems, such as the level of any fraud that took place and any difficulties in the system, and make sensible arrangements for universal provision. A scientist would say that for an experiment, one needs an experimental subject and a control—[Hon. Members: "The south-west."] The south-west is hardly a comparable region to the north-west. If any hon. Member believes that the north-west has similar characteristics to the south-west—

Ian Stewart: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it not a convention of the House that when a Member refers directly to another Member, that Member is allowed to intervene?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: That is entirely a matter for the Member who is addressing the House at the time.

Mr. Heath: The only person to whom I can recall making a reference was Lord Filkin and I do not think that he is allowed to intervene in this place. I am baffled by the hon. Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart)—

Ian Stewart rose—

Mr. Heath: I am so baffled that I shall accept his intervention so that he can explain what he is talking about.

Ian Stewart: In his very theatrical contribution, the hon. Gentleman said that he wanted to know who had asked for the pilot to be held in the north-west and why that region had been chosen rather than another one. I am in favour of other regions having the same facilities, but the question now is why should the hon. Gentleman, his colleagues and Members of an unelected House stop my constituents from having the right to a postal ballot. We held a postal ballot pilot in Salford and in one ward where turnout had been 12 per cent. it went up to 25 per cent. That is one reason why we should hold postal ballots.

Mr. Heath: All right. I have listened to what the hon. Gentleman said. He has had an all-postal ballot in Salford; I have had an all-postal ballot in my constituency. He is denying my constituents—

Ian Stewart indicated dissent.

Mr. Heath: Yes, he is. That is what the Bill says. He should read the Bill. It will be illegal for—

Ian Stewart: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I very much hope that this is a point of order, not a matter of debate, because time is running out and other hon. Members want to contribute.

Ian Stewart: It is a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I made it clear in my contribution that I am in favour of other regions having postal ballots.


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