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Mr. Jenkin: The Electoral Commission wants individual voter registration, which requires provision in legislation. In place of that, however, Parliament decided that for the electoral pilots there should be witness declarations of voter identity.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that a further simple step to reduce fraud would be for postal votes to be issued only to those people who request them? After all, that is the system at present.
Mr. Jenkin: I fully agree with my hon. Friend; that is the only safe way to conduct elections. Without individual registration, and having no provision in legislation for the declaration of identity to be witnessed, there is no way that the authorities will be able to tell the scale of any fraud.
England is the mother of Parliaments. The democratic institutions in this country used to set the standards for countless democracies throughout the world. The English constitution was the inspiration of Locke and Montesquieuthe philosophers who in their turn were the inspiration of the founding fathers of the American constitution. Our Parliament here at Westminster has established countless constitutions for new nations around the world, yet now, after centuries of nurturing and developing the world's benchmark for democracy, we are faced with constitutional chaos, which the Government have created in a remarkably short period.
Earlier this month, we saw a collapse in public confidence in the voting system unprecedented in modern times. In the style of a dictatorship, the
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Government declared the all-postal pilots to have been "successfully completed", and less than five months away from referendums on significant constitutional change, we are told that they may never take place. If they do, they are likely to be a farce.
No wonder politics is becoming the despair of voters across the country. If the Government are truly interested in raising turnout at elections, they should look more closely at the way in which they conduct the government and stewardship of our constitution, rather than seeking short-term increases in participation through the use of voting gimmicks.
The Minister for Local and Regional Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
"welcomes progress the Government is making in implementing its proposals for elected regional assemblies set out in the White Paper, Your Region, Your Choice: Revitalising the English Regions, based on the principles of increasing prosperity, pride and democracy in the regions; applauds the opportunity afforded to people in the three northern regions of England to have their say about whether they want an elected assembly for their region; welcomes the decision to hold the referendum by all-postal ballot while noting the Government's preparedness to give a clear undertaking not to proceed with all-postal referendums as planned if the Electoral Commission produces convincing evidence leading to the conclusion that it would be unsafe to do so; welcomes the Government's decision to have one assistance and delivery point per 50,000 electors, giving the choice as to whether to return their vote by post, to deliver it by hand, or to vote at a place supervised by electoral officials; further notes the Boundary Committee's estimates of the savings from local government restructuring in regions which choose to establish an elected regional assembly; looks forward to the publication of the draft Bill which would establish elected assemblies, once the date for the referendums has been set by Parliament; commends the Government's endeavours to ensure that people voting in the referendums have information on which to base their choice; and notes that the principal confusion about regional policy appears to be on the Opposition benches."
The Opposition claim that there is confusion in regional government policy, but after listening to the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) there can be little doubt in the Chamber that it is the Opposition, and the hon. Gentleman in particular, who are confused.
When we last debated elected regional assemblies, on 11 February, the spokesman for the Opposition was the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), and I am delighted to see him in the Chamber this afternoon. He had given, as is his wont, serious thought to the issue. In a speech in 2000, he said:
"In its potential to restore some vigour to local democracy, and to offer a constitutional settlement, regional government deserves real consideration."
Two years later, he added a further acute observation:
"There is actually a case for regional devolution, and it is silly to pretend that that case does not exist. There are two arguments in favour of regional devolution. One is that there is a serious problem with representative democracy in Britain today. We have passed power out of the hands of people who are accountable . . . The second argument for regional devolution is that, at some stage, we have to address the problem of the government of England. I happen to be passionately opposed to the idea of an English Government."
The hon. Member for North Essex referred to the English Parliament; it was probably a slip of the tongue, so I hope that he will correct it. This is the British Parliament. I agree with the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon who is passionately opposed to the idea of an English Government.
Mr. Jenkin: I said that England is the mother of Parliaments.
Mr. Raynsford: When the hon. Gentleman checks Hansard tomorrow, I think he will see that his reference was to an English Parliament, but I leave him to make the subsequent correction.
I shall continue quoting from the speech made by the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon. He said:
"I can think of nothing more destructive for the United Kingdom than a wholly imbalanced power centred in an English Government, faced with the powers of the much smaller nationalities in the United Kingdom. Devolution to regions of the United Kingdom can provide an answer to this problem."[Official Report, 26 November 2002; Vol. 395, c. 31819.]
The right hon. Gentleman of course had some difficulties in reconciling his entirely sensible approach with the mindlessly negative approach that the dominant forces in his party had adopted on regional assemblies. How it must have reminded him of debates about Europe when he had comparable difficulties with the Eurosceptics. He sought to square the circle by arguing that he was not opposed in principle to regional devolution but that he could not support the Government's proposals because they did not give the regions sufficient powers.
While that undoubtedly helped the right hon. Gentleman out of the difficulty of reconciling his views with his party's, I am not sure that there was any solid basis for claiming that the Tory party wanted more devolution to the regions. No doubt had he continued in his post, we would have seen proposals for extending the powers of elected regional assemblies and enjoyed a constructive debate about them. Sadly, he no longer speaks for his party and in his absence there have been no proposalsnonefrom the official Opposition to give more powers to elected regional assemblies.
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con) rose
Mr. Raynsford: Of course I give way to the right hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Curry: I had a feeling that the right hon. Gentleman might give way.
I rescind not one jot of what I said. If we look to some sort of regional devolution to balance the distribution of power within the United Kingdom as a whole, it follows that there must be an analogy between the powers devolved to places such as Scotland and, to a lesser extent, Wales and those devolved to English regions. If that were to happen, sensible people would want to see whether it could be made to work. But that is not on offer. What is being offered to the English regions is a hollow echo even of what was offered to Wales, so sensible people will not want to follow a course that merely submits to the Government's agenda of pure tokenism.
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Mr. Raynsford: As I pointed out to the right hon. Gentleman, he made a perfectly sound case for giving more powers to the regions and I put it to him that what is on offer to the English regions is broadly comparable to what was offered to the people of London who voted in favour of it and now have their city-wide authority, which fulfils most of the same functions that are proposed for the English regional assemblies. I hear what he says; if he is sincere in his objective, what representations has he made to his party to advocate greater powers for elected regional assemblies and why does he think that the current Opposition Front Benchers appear so lacking in interest in extending the powers of elected regional assemblies?
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