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Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire) (Lab): In praying in aid what the Electoral Commission may or may not be saying, how does the hon. Gentleman square what he said with the remark of the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) in this place last week:

Mr. Jenkin: It is quite clear. We did not support the establishment of the Electoral Commission. We think that these decisions should ultimately be taken by Parliament. The Electoral Commission is a quango, but a quango established by the hon. Gentleman's Labour colleagues to advise the Labour Government on policy. It is extraordinary that, having set up such a body, the Government consistently ignore its advice—and at taxpayers' expense.

Irrespective of whether the referendums will actually take place, the announcement last week will have been of grave concern to those campaigning both in favour of and against regional assemblies in the north of England. As the Minister will know from his Department's
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propaganda campaign, advertising space and leaflet printers have to be booked weeks in advance of publication. However, if there is no guarantee that the referendums will actually go ahead, how can the yes or no campaigns commit to contracts and liabilities for their forward campaigns? Will the Government underwrite those commitments, so that designated organisations will be compensated if the referendums are cancelled? Under what legislation would the Government have the power to do that?

If the referendums are postponed after the official campaigns have been designated, will the Government confirm that they will not seek to recover the grant given to those campaigns? We know that the Electoral Commission has floated the idea of reimbursing the designated campaigns for expenditure incurred before they receive the grants, but would that still happen if the referendums were to be postponed before the grants were issued?

What is the Government's real agenda behind all this mess? Is it merely to take account of a report from the Electoral Commission—a quango that they created but have so often ignored—or is it to use the Electoral Commission as a convenient alibi for cancelling the referendums, if it is convenient to do so? We know, as the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) pointed out, that the Prime Minister is less than enthusiastic about these referendums. After suffering a record humiliation at the local elections, he is no doubt even less inclined to receive another kicking—to use the Deputy Prime Minister's words—before the next general election.

We know that many in the Government are opposed to holding the referendums. Andrew Marr of the BBC reported that three senior Ministers to whom he had spoken believed that the Government would lose all three. We know that the Labour Party is split on the issue. We know that Lord Haskins, chairman of the yes campaign in Yorkshire, has told Labour MPs in Yorkshire that the referendums should indeed be postponed. We have even had a Yorkshire Labour MP saying that the Prime Minister was "scared to tell John"—the Deputy Prime Minister—that he has to "pull the plug".

The Deputy Prime Minister was due to meet Labour MPs in the three northern regions yesterday to discuss whether the Government should continue with the referendums. Well, what happened? Perhaps the Minister would like to inform the House of the outcome of those discussions because they clearly have a bearing on the public interest. [Hon. Members: "It's tonight."] Oh, the meeting is tonight, so perhaps we will have a statement tomorrow. I will table a question to elicit an answer.

It is all too clear that, if the Government look likely to lose the referendums by the time the Electoral Commission is due to report in September, they will cancel them. Perhaps the Minister will assure the House that whatever is decided will apply to all three referendums. It would surely be invidious for just one or two of the referendums to be allowed to go ahead because they were deemed to be politically convenient for the Government.

Our position on the referendums is clear. The people in the north of England have been promised a referendum on regional assemblies. We should make
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sure that that promise is kept. There are two simple steps that the Minister can take to reduce the confusion surrounding the Government's policy and to ensure the referendums are held on schedule.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can clarify. I understood the Conservative position—it has certainly been expressed in the House—to be that the people of the north of England should not have a referendum in which they would be entitled to choose whether to have a regional assembly. Is the hon. Gentleman now insisting—if so, I welcome it—that they should have such a referendum?

Mr. Jenkin: The simple fact is that the Government have announced that the referendums are going ahead, and the legislation has been passed. A promise has been made to the people of the north of England, and it is reasonable for politicians to want to keep other politicians to their promises. If I may say so, I certainly understand if the right hon. Gentleman is joining some of the other yes campaigners in hoping that the referendum will not go ahead. May I ask the right hon. Gentleman himself whether he believes that the referendums should go ahead?

Mr. Beith: I put a question to the hon. Gentleman. Is he now prepared to say that the people of the north of England should have the opportunity to vote on whether or not they want a regional assembly? The last time that question was addressed from the Conservative Front Bench, the answer was that they should not be given that opportunity. My view is that they should.

Mr. Jenkin: This far down the track, a promise having been made to the people of the north of England that they will have their say, I say let the people speak.

The Minister could reduce the uncertainty and confusion by taking two steps. First, the Government must publish the draft Bill detailing the powers that the elected assemblies would have, so that we could put an end to the endless battles in Whitehall, in time for debate in both Houses before the summer. Secondly, the Government must restore the option of voting in person at the ballot box for the regional referendums. That would not only obviate the need to wait for the Electoral Commission's report in September—there is one reason—but restore public confidence in the voting system for the referendums.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) (Lab): I do not believe that anyone should second-guess what the outcome of the Electoral Commission's work will be. However, one of last year's pilots in the May local government elections was held in my constituency. The report that was produced in July said that there was no difference at all between all-postal votes, any other form of postal votes or anything else. It seems likely to me that the Electoral Commission will give the go-ahead.

Mr. Jenkin: I have already explained that the Electoral Commission is unhappy with the current state of the legislation on all-postal voting. I should have thought that the experience of the large-scale postal pilots would be as evident to the right hon. Gentleman as to everybody else: there were lots of problems.
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A new problem is likely to arise in all-postal referendums: the possibility of massive vote harvesting. The Government must abandon the principle that ballot papers should be sent out in the post to anybody and everybody whether or not they have requested them. That is a recipe for electoral fraud, and it invites the misuse of those ballot papers. If interest and party—[Interruption.] The Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Corby (Phil Hope) says, "If you can't win the vote, fix the electoral system," but it is his party that is fixing the electoral system. If ballot boxes were good enough for the Scottish and Welsh referendums, why are they not good enough for the people of the north of England? That is the tried and tested voting system that people want; they do not want new-fangled ideas.

The danger of vote harvesting is that the unscrupulous will make use of the ballot papers of the disinterested. We know that apathy as regards elected regional assemblies is rife, and that turnout is likely to be well below 50 per cent. In that case, ballot papers are likely to be floating around in bins and skips all over the place. It is a recipe for chaos, confusion and mismanagement of the electoral process.

Kali Mountford: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way on that point, as I consider it an outrageous slur. Does he have any evidence to prop up that slur and the allegations he has just made? What possible objection could he have to an election turnout of more than 50 per cent.—not ballot papers in bins, but ballot papers counted?

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