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1FClause 1, Line 3, leave out—
"(d) North West."

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment is a new proposal not previously considered in the other place, to allow for three postal pilots to take place, in the hope that it is a way in which to resolve this matter. I will argue that this is a compromise—splitting the difference between the view of one House and one political party that there should be four pilots, and the view of our House and all other parties that there should be two. We in this House, and everyone but the Labour Party, have sustained a view that the independent Electoral Commission's opinion on the scale and places for piloting should be pivotal in our considerations. This is not a technical issue on which there could be a variety of opinions worth debating. It is, I think, a very principled one—that no one party should choose different voting mechanisms for different places according to its own interest, based in this case on fears that the electorate will not turn out to support it.

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Perhaps a different way of resolving the matter of testing postal pilots might have been to allow each of the parties to nominate one region for polling. That would have been rather more democratic than the Government's proposal that there should be all-postal voting in the northern half of England—where the Labour party wants it most, where Labour support is most concentrated, and where most Labour councillors are fearful of re-election—and none in the south, where Labour support is at its weakest.

The majority of Members in another place say that it is up to them to decide on methods of voting as they represent the party that received most votes at the previous election—albeit just over four in 10 of those voting, representing only about one in four of those entitled to vote. An opinion poll today suggests that only about four in 10 people know who their Member of Parliament is and only about three in 10 say that MPs are doing a good job. Reading yesterday's debate, one can see why.

One reason that they should not decide this issue alone, without consensus and in opposition to the Electoral Commission, is that they have a vested interest in the decision. That is why the issue regarding where the line should be drawn between electoral experimentation and simply rolling out a different voting system should be left not to one party to decide to its own advantage but to an independent body charged with helping to avoid the kind of dispute between the parties that we now have.

Parliament—which to some people means only one House— should decide, it is argued, on the fundamental issue of whether or not to do away with ballot boxes and have all postal voting. But we cannot have the Government picking and choosing which regions should have which voting mechanism according to their own electoral advantage. The Government say that they are not effectively changing the voting system; they are experimenting with it only through pilots. However, the question of what is a limited number of experiments and what is simply rolling out a different way of voting is an issue on which most parties and the independent Electoral Commission cannot agree with the Labour Government.

The Government asked Parliament to agree to postpone the local and London elections until 10 June so that they coincided with the European elections. At that stage, they did not want all postal pilots; or, if they did, they were not at that stage being honest about it. That would have been a major factor in considering whether or not to agree to the rare measure of postponing local elections. That matter was agreed on these Benches but on the basis of a false prospectus about how those elections were to be conducted.

The Government then surprised everyone by asking for there to be three all-postal pilots although at this stage they accepted the role of the Electoral Commission in deciding which three might be suitable. When the commission said that only two regions were in a position for them positively to recommend the idea, the Government maintained that they wanted three pilots. The Electoral Commission now says that

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three pilots, including Yorkshire and the Humber, can be carried out according to the agreed criteria of balancing logistical problems, fears of fraud and acceptance of the principle. It states in a letter yesterday that its objections to the idea of all-postal pilots in the north-west remain today just as they were last December.

This amendment offers the Government what they say they have wanted throughout most of a lengthy process of consideration of the issue. I believe that it would be churlish of them to reject it. I beg to move.

Moved, as an amendment to the Motion that this House do not insist on its Amendment No. 1D to Commons Amendment No. 1C to which the Commons have disagreed for their reason numbered 1E, at end insert "but do make Amendment No. 1F to Commons Amendment No. 1C in lieu of Lords Amendment No. 1D".—(Lord Rennard.)

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, I wish to intervene and perhaps lay on the record for students of proceedings on these matters what the position is in relation to votes in the House of Commons. What is clear to me is that in the past month a decision has been taken among groups of Opposition Peers to exert considerably more pressure on the Floor of the House by calling votes at inconvenient times and insisting on voting on issues which are clearly in contradiction to the position taken by Members of the elected House. In so far as I believe that the inevitable course we are on is one of crisis in the relationship between the two Houses, I should like to set down for students of these issues where we are on this Bill.

Lord Tordoff: My Lords, perhaps I may—

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, I shall give way in a few moments. Perhaps at this stage I could refer to an Early Day Motion tabled in the House of Commons two and a half weeks ago which refers to similar attempts to sabotage government legislation on the Criminal Justice Bill. Students of these issues may wish to know that it is EDM 847 in the Official Report of the House of Commons. It deals with Clauses 41 and 42 of the Criminal Justice Bill. The Motion concludes that it,

    "condemns unreservedly those Peers who pay lip service to the primacy of this House;"—

that is the Commons—

    "believes the issue to be considered in this case is not the merit of the clauses"—

on that occasion it was dealing with jury trial—

    "on which honourable Members are entitled to have differing views but the abuse of the constitutional relationship between Lords and Commons and questions the commitment to democracy of unelected Opposition Peers who reject the primacy of the elected House".

On this occasion there have been four votes—

Lord Tordoff: My Lords, the noble Lord referred to the fact that somehow the timetable was being dictated by the Opposition in your Lordships' House. That is

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clearly not true. The timetable of this House is in the hands of the Government, certainly with the support of the other parties. The idea that somehow the timetabling that brings issues into this House at times that are unacceptable to Members of the Government is clearly wrong.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, the timetabling of the debate today inevitably must be in the hands of the Opposition whose decisions on these issues have led to this debate.

Lord Tordoff: My Lords, the timetabling of this debate today is not in the hands of the Opposition. The fact that this matter has come back from the Commons at this time today is not a matter for the opposition parties. It is a matter for the Government. If the noble Lord does not accept that, he should talk to his Front Bench about it.

Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, the noble Lord should talk to his own Front Bench in the House of Commons. Those Members will tell him that the Government have won in another place on four separate occasions. I am arguing that if this repeated defeating of the Government on this important issue had not taken place, we should not be sitting here today. Therefore, the responsibility for the debate taking place today falls precisely to those who have placed the Government in this position.

Let me set out the figures so that students of these matters will know. The Government's position in the Commons was carried on 16 December with a vote of 357 to 135. It was then taken for a second time in the Commons on 8 March. The Government's position was upheld by a vote of 269 to 166. It was then taken on a third occasion in the House of Commons and was carried by a vote of 312 to 115. It was then taken yesterday in the House of Commons and was carried by 308 to 185. The noble Baroness may look frustrated by the use of these figures but the reality is that these are elected Members of Parliament expressing their view in the Division Lobbies of the House of Commons.

The noble Baroness and noble Lords opposite might like to know what they are saying about these matters in the House of Commons. Mr Winnick said:

    "Is it not an outright impertinence for those in the unelected Chamber to try to set down voting procedures when the House of Commons has made its decisions? Should we not tell them so now?".—[Official Report, Commons, 24/3/04; col. 956.]

Mr Lindsay Hoyle said:

    "It has quite rightly been stated that the matter before us is for the House to decide, because we are the elected House, we represent the people and we represent the electorate out there. Therefore, does my hon. Friend agree that this decision should be taken here, not by an unelected House".—[Official Report, Commons, 24/3/04; col. 956.]

Mr Leslie, the Minister, replied:

    "My hon Friend hits the nail on the head. An important constitutional principle is at stake. The House of Commons has made its views known on a number of occasions, yet the second Chamber has been acting not in a revising capacity, but perhaps in a blocking capacity".—[Official Report, Commons, 24/3/04; col. 956.]

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The reality is that we are blocking. We have blocked with votes of 169 to 110, 174 to 130, 135 to 106, and no doubt the intention of Members of this House is once again to block the measure today, or basically the principle of the four pilots. All I say to the House is that we cannot go on like that. At some stage, someone has to consider what primacy means. It seems a pointless exercise if people argue in this Chamber that they believe in primacy—I have heard it repeatedly, certainly over the past six to nine months—and set out deliberately to defeat the Government, having voted on three separate occasions and the fourth occasion is coming up today. My case stands on the fact that we are now taking on the other House in a way that it finds unacceptable.

Furthermore, what we are doing will have major implications for the relationship between the Houses. There is deep frustration in the House of Commons about what is going on in the House of Lords. When I came down here, I was advised that it was not a particularly political place—that people set out to revise legislation, argued passionately, and had extremely good debating arrangements. I have heard some of the finest debates in all my 23 years in the Palace of Westminster in the House of Lords. But the reality is that we are moving on from revisory debates into the area of blocking the Government on issues that are of vital importance. On this occasion, on the basis of the amendment, we are blocking on the question of whether people in the north-west of England should have the right to vote in the elections by way of post—I mean, whether there should be a postal vote.

3 p.m.

Lord Greaves: My Lords, the noble Lord has not taken part in our debates until today, so it is entirely understandable that he might not have a complete grasp on what we are talking about. The amendment is not about whether people have a right to vote by post, but the reverse—whether postal voting is compulsory, with people not having the right to go to a polling station.

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