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Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, if the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, were alone in the argument—if it were not for the forces arrayed behind him elsewhere—I would be persuaded by him. He was sweetly reasonable, accommodating and courteous. We have come to associate those virtues with him and I respect him for them.

On the other hand, he has not answered the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard: what on earth would the Government lose by accepting the amendment? My suspicion is that they would lose a certain amount of face. On the other hand, they might take credit for being generous. But I suspect that the face which will be lost if the amendment is carried today will not be that of the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, but that of the Deputy Prime Minister.

The Deputy Prime Minister is not a man given to accommodation—not a man given to a ready understanding of the point of view of the other side. Here we are, dealing with the electoral machinery and it is dangerous that a well established convention should be waived aside at the will of a Deputy Prime Minister to suit himself and his belief in regional government.

I would find it difficult to do anything other than support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard.

Lord Greaves: My Lords, unlike most noble Lords who have taken part in today's debate, I have clung

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doggedly to the Bill, having been present during every minute of every stage as it has gone through this House. I share one thing in common with the Minister; that is the sincere hope that this is the last time we have to debate it in this House and that we can reach a conclusion. It is vital that those responsible for the arrangements can organise the elections.

I should declare that I am likely to be on the ballot paper on 10 June in the north-west. Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, who intervened in the speech of my noble friend Lord Rennard, that the people in the north-west who are running scared about these elections are not us and not even the Conservatives, but those in the Labour Party in the region. They are petrified by the prospect of being slaughtered in these elections. That is what this is all about.

I agree with the Minister, who said when we debated the Bill two days ago that an all-postal ballot will not make much difference to the results. He pointed out that no academic research has shown that there is a difference. In practice, there has been no academic research on the question at all. The general view of our party is that all-postal ballots will make no difference to the results in any part of the region. But that is not the view of the Labour Party in the region and that is the motivation behind the proposal.

I have had great respect for the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, since I first met him some 40 years ago. Like him, I came into this House after the first stage of its reform. The situation here is now very different indeed from what it had been in perpetuity before that time—for as long ago as anyone can remember. Yesterday, the Leader of the House quoted Lord Rosebery on the matter. I did not think that there was British politician left who quoted Lord Rosebery in evidence on anything, but we know that the Leader of our House now does so—and she is welcome to him.

But the present situation is different. The previous Leader of the House, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, said that this House now has more legitimacy. Those were her words. If that means anything, it means that occasionally we have the right to insist, at least within the parameters of the Parliament Acts, which are the laid-down legal frameworks.

I am no expert on the British constitution—I merely observe what happens to those aspects of which I have been part over the years. In this House, I observe that after the passage of a Bill most disagreements between this House and the House of Commons are not resolved by this House conceding 100 per cent. They are resolved by a sensible compromise being reached between the two Houses. That is what usually happens. It is a matter of fact.

The truth is that on this Bill, the sensible compromise has had to come from this House. It is the compromise between four areas, which the Government suddenly decided they wanted having first said none and then three, and the two areas which the Electoral Commission said were possible. We have compromised on three areas with the commission. I want to know why that compromise was not accepted by the House of Commons.

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Perhaps some of what has been going on in the undergrowth should be put on the record at this stage. After this House first voted for two regions to take part in the pilot, a number of informal approaches were made, mainly to members of the Conservative Party in different places, to ask whether we would compromise on the issue of three regions. I understand that the message sent back at that time was, "Not at this stage".

Nearly three weeks ago, informal approaches were made by some of the more sensible people in the Labour Government and by people associated with them to the opposition parties in this House to ask whether we would compromise on the issue of three regions. As I understood it, the deal was that we would have to choose three regions because the Government could not decide.

Lord Filkin: My Lords, I regret interrupting the noble Lord's interesting speech but, as a point of truth, I invite those with whom I had those conversations to confirm that the two propositions set out by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, were never, in fact, put. There was never a proposal from the Government that the opposition parties should put forward the option of three regions or choose that. Meetings were arranged to hold discussions, but at each of those meetings with the noble Lords, Lord Cope and Lord Rennard, I made it clear that I was not in a position to have any discussion whatever.

Lord Rennard: My Lords, I am happy to confirm that, in all my conversations with the Minister, no such agreement was suggested with the noble Lord opposite on any occasion.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: My Lords, may we ask the noble Lord—

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, I can also confirm what the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, said so far as concerns the meeting that he held with me.

Noble Lords: Withdraw.

Lord Greaves: My Lords, of course, I am perfectly happy to accept what the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, has said. I never suggested that the discussions had taken place with the noble Lord, Lord Filkin. It is my understanding that informal discussions took place at senior levels and I shall stick to that. I am not suggesting that the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, took part in those discussions.

We all know that the reason that the Government have not been able to compromise on the issue of three regions is that some senior members of the Government in the north of England were not able to reach an agreement. People in Yorkshire, led by the Deputy Prime Minister, put their foot down in relation to Yorkshire, and people in the north-west, led by some of the equally extremely able politicians in the north-west, including, I believe, the chairman of the Labour Party but many others too, some of whom have spoken in this House, were not prepared to compromise on the matter of the

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north-west. That is why we have not been able to achieve the kind of sensible compromise which would have resolved this matter at least a fortnight ago and which could have allowed the elections to be organised far more quickly than has been the case.

If there is a problem between the Houses, that is not the fault of this House, which has sought to compromise; it is the fault of the Government, who have been obstinate and who, for whatever political reasons of their own, have refused to understand that the compromise was on offer and that it was a sensible thing to do. I shall say one final thing.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Greaves: My Lords, who knows? This may be the last occasion that we debate the Bill in this House. But this will not be the last time that these matters are raised because the question of compulsory postal voting—the substantive issue that we are discussing—is a matter of fundamental constitutional importance. It puts at risk the whole question of the free vote, based on the secret ballot, and unless—I am sorry; my phone is ringing. There are times when one would like to curl up and crawl under a bed. Unfortunately, there is not room under my Bench.

The whole question of compulsory postal voting puts at risk the fundamental constitutional matter of the free vote and the secret vote, as entrenched in the Ballot Act 1872. Until answers to those questions are provided, those of us who are concerned about these matters will continue to raise them and to complain and object to what some of us see as the Government playing fast and loose with the most important and fundamental matter underlying our democracy. The fact that noble Lords opposite believe that this is a matter for hilarity is something which shows—

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, perhaps I may interrupt the noble Lord for one moment. He has made some very impressive points but, whatever one may think of them, does he realise that the longer he goes on, the more he is destroying them?

Lord Greaves: My Lords, the noble Earl will be very pleased to know that I have finished.

12.15 p.m.

Lord Filkin: My Lords, I shall be brief. I want to respond to only one or two of the points raised in the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, with whom we have worked on the Bill vigorously for quite some time, suggested that the Government might have chosen some regions in the south rather than all the regions being in the north. I believe that it is important for the House to understand the process by which the regions were considered.

The Electoral Commission was asked to give advice on which regions might be suitable for pilots. It identified two that were suitable. It then identified Scotland and, I believe, two others that were potentially suitable. The

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remainder, it said, were not suitable. In deciding which regions should be piloted, the Government worked strictly down the list in the order in which it was given to us by the Electoral Commission. I do not believe that it would have been open to us, in wisdom, to have gone outside that list in the way that was suggested.

Secondly, I mark the point that has infected this debate at times—that is, whether there is a party-political advantage. I shall repeat what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said; I am sure that that will be welcome. There is no academic research that I know of that indicates that postal ballots favour one party or another. Agents become massively excited about this issue but I believe that, at this stage, the evidence is particularly inconclusive and uncertain.

I also want to address the question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. It was a good question concerning whether evidence from the Electoral Commission on how the pilot had worked in the four regions would be available in time to inform practice on the regional referendums in October. As the Bill states, the commission must report within three months of the election. Therefore, its report would be available before September. If there are any early lessons to be learnt in advance, I believe it is particularly important that we try to receive them if they would help to improve electoral practice. Where such information can be shared, we would share it with opposition parties, as one would expect.

I shall cut to the end. The noble Lord, Lord Holme, said that there was a danger of elective dictatorship. That is an important issue, and it is partly the reason for having this House. Clearly, one recognises that that is partly what we do: we balance the majority in another place. But there is also a danger of an unelective dictatorship. The situation that I sought to signal to noble Lords was that the current situation—that is, with the Government having no overall majority in this House—is likely to be the status quo in the future. I consider that to be good. But the implication that flows from that is that a coalition of two opposition parties—either in substance or on any particular issue—could always, always block the will of the other place. We must reflect on that because of its serious constitutional importance.

I was simply signalling that where an issue has massive constitutional merit, this House will no doubt take it to the line. But the question whether four or three regions take part in a regional pilot is a third division, rather than a first division, issue. I find it astounding that we might wish to test our conventions beyond any previous limits. For those reasons, while I respect, and do not expect to change, the views of other Members, I believe that now is the time for us to cease our resistance in this respect.

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