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Lord Rooker: My Lords, perhaps we can talk about it now. We said before today's debate that if the Electoral Commission gave such an account in its reports later this year, we would not proceed with any of them. That still applies, although obviously the report will be more relevant to the north-east. If it is evidence-based, the undertaking not to proceed with an all-postal voting referendum still applies. There is no pulling back from that commitment.
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, that is helpful, although I hope that the Government will take note of what the Electoral Commission has to say about the other areas. After all, experiences in one region should be read as potential risks in another.
The amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, uses the word "regrets". I regret that, procedurally, she has not dealt with the matter as straightforwardly as she did from the Dispatch Box. She made it quite clear that she opposed the order, but, as I understand it, the amendment is not fatal. I regret that the Conservative Benches have not expressed in procedure what we know they really think. They oppose regional government, even though they keep on talking about it and referring to it as local government. We on these Benches will not align ourselves with them, which will come as no surprise to them or others.
Nevertheless, there are areas of concern. The Government are in somewhat of a pickle of their own making. Enough warnings were given about all-postal ballots in June. The powers in the Bill need to be clarified. Those powers need wide discussion, because people need to know what they are voting for. The timetable of this House does not allow us to do a huge amount about that, but I have asked my noble friend
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the Chief Whip of the Liberal Democrats to try to secure through the usual channels a debate on the Bill as early as we reasonably can in order that we can have a rational, measured discussion of what is proposed.
Certainly, we would welcome extension of the powers beyond those that are set out in the White Paper. We have said often enough that they are far too restricted. I have heard that transport and learning and skills are now far more embedded in the agenda than they were at the time of the White Paper. I understand from my noble friend Lady Maddock that whenever one talks about regional government in the north-east, the question of the A1 comes up. Transport is hugely important.
On the ballot, I take the point that when it is not a question of individuals standing, there is less risk of fraud, but the experience in June was one of confusion and inconvenience. The Government show a touching faith in the ability of the Royal Mail, which in SW14 is now taking five days to deliver mail from SW1. If I have not received everything that the Minister sent to me on this issue, I apologiseI know I have not received some of it. Perversely, in London, most ballot papers arrived before information from the Greater London Returning Officer, which shows the kind of difficulties that are inherent in the process.
We heard that one assistance and delivery point per 50,000 people will be set up. However, that is almost the size of a parliamentary constituency even in an urban area. I understand that the Berwick-upon-Tweed constituency has 58,000 peopleit is certainly more than 50,000. Some rural constituencies are very large geographical areas. Could the Minister pass on any views from local authorities on keeping those points open for long hours, seven days a week, as it will be the returning officers, who are part of the local authority system, who will be dealing with the ballots?
The Royal National Institute of the Blind, which will have briefed many noble Lords on this issue, has argued for longer opening hours. I would certainly argue for more points. I welcome too the change in arrangements for witnesses. On 10 June, I had to refuse to witness the signature of somebody who turned up at a polling station, because it was claimed that that person was known to me. She was not, and I felt that it was appalling not to be able to assist someone to go and vote. She was within yards of the ballot box, but neither the presiding officer nor I, as a teller outside, could help her.
I mentioned the RNIB's briefing. There is not time this morning to go through it in the detail that I would like, but I would like the Minister to say something about making the ballot more accessible and about helping people to read information. We should not have it in 8-point print; I doubt that any noble Lords have the speeches that they read in the Chamber in such small print. I want to hear about how we get information into alternative formats and how people can get to assistance points.
I was pleased to hear that, in Liverpool, the electoral office approached the Liverpool Voluntary Society for the Blind and asked for advice on how best to ensure
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that blind and partially sighted people know how to vote. Electoral officers there also asked the society to provide awareness training for electoral staff. I mention that not just so that I can crow about the local authority concerned but because it is a useful model that could be followed.
The mock-up ballot paper that I have seen shows a map. It was the ballot paper for Durham, and I do not know how widely it has been made available. I do not know whether it is possible under the terms of the order, but I would press for a far more detailed map. It did not even show towns; there were shapes of districts. One would need to be very geographically and spatially aware to read a map that just showed interlocking shapes and know what the shapes referred to. I know that we are not going ahead with it now, but I also saw maps for Wyre and west Lancashire. They were more conventional and showed the detail. That is what we should have.
As I said, one might say that it was cynical or pragmatic. A Bill will be published, and we will do our best to debate it before, perhaps, the north-east goes to the polls on 4 November. The north-east will not now be distracted by arguments in the media about other regions and will be able to concentrate on its own region. Our fear throughout has been that the Government were going the right way to make the worst of the argument. They must provide the best basis on which voters can decide.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, referred to voters being "unwise enough" to decide on an Assembly. I know what I hope that the outcome will be, but I would not presume to judge the wisdom of the voters. We should agree to the orders today and leave them to make up their mind.
The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford: My Lords, these matters affect the whole country. Those of us on these Benches have, with our ecumenical partners, been active participants in the regional institutions set up in recent years. We can bring quite a bit of experience to such matters.
When I was Bishop of Guildford, the south-east of England region ran from Milton Keynes to Canterbury. I am now in Chelmsford, in a region that comes within the area of Essex County Council, has two unitary authorities, and is part of the east of England region, while the economic, social and political realities of our area are determined in London. So there are significant and important questions about the way in which the people are represented in these matters.
As for the issue of ballots, is it wise for us to proceed with postal ballots in advance of the assessments of the Electoral Commission? What is actually going on? What is the real meaning of the announcement that the proposals surrounding regional government are now in retreat? That is very important for the country. We need to know where we are in relation to those issues, not only in the north-east but throughout the country. Where are we going? What is the Government's view on these things? What are we supposed to relate to, in terms of public policy and perception? There are big questions.
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In the east of England, and especially in the county of Essex, there are major development issues in front of us. Two of the major areas for the Government's housing development in the south-east of England are in my diocese. There are big questions, and people in local government constantly ask me about the shape of regional political practice.
If we proceed to the ballot in the north-east of England, how are we going to interpret the result? I have in front of me the map showing north Durham, east Durham and south Durham. I know the region, because I lived in Durham for nine years. What happens, and how will the result be interpreted, if there is a 30 per cent poll with south Durham voting one way on the issue and north and east Durham voting the other way? What is going to happen? Are we moving into new structures for government in our country on the basis of ballots set up in this manner, without a way of understanding how the Government will interpret how people respond? If we do not have clarity about how the response is to be interpreted, the rest of us who, in the dim and distant future, see the possibility of ballots coming our way, even in the south-east of Englandalthough I find it extremely difficult to conceive that we shall ever arrive at that point in the south-east
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