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Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I referred to the noble Lord's last point. I could not possibly agree with or comment upon his assertion in relation to my right honourable and learned friend the Lord Chancellor. I heard what was said from behind, but I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, would not seek the chairmanship or foremanship himself on any prospective jury. However, the noble Lord makes a valid point. Jurors are supposed to be a jury of one's peers, not simply a jury of those who are willing. We need a broad spectrum and representative number of people on our juries if we are to get a balanced and proper decision made.
Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, the Minister refers to the discretion of the summoning officer; but she will know that in long cases, the judge frequently excuses people who have holidays that are booked, who are carers, who are proprietors of sole businesses, and so on. Is anything that she says today intended to interfere with that discretion?
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I do not think that it is intended to interfere with that discretion. What I am saying is that all those points should properly be put, under the new system, to the summoning officer, who would then exercise a discretion to exclude.
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The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker): My Lords, it is in the light of the Electoral Commission's report as published on 27 August in relation to the North East Regional Assembly referendum that the Government are proceeding as planned.
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, does the Minister not agree that with the Electoral Commission's report, the Government have now comprehensively lost the argument about all-postal voting? Does he not agree that the one that will take place in the north-east can do so only on the basis that the Government bounced Parliament into a decision before the Electoral Commission was able to report on the all-postal pilots? Has the Minister noted the Electoral Commission's position that it can offer no reassurances that the ballot in the north-east will be risk-free? Does he not now wish that he had left untampered with the position of voting in this country?
Lord Rooker: My Lords, I can only draw the noble Baroness's attention, and that of the House, to the report of the Electoral Commission, published on 27 August, which I presume that she has read. The fifth paragraph of the report made the matter quite clear when it said:
The Electoral Commission gave a series of other reasons why it believed the north-east referendum should proceed, including the fact that Parliament had approved the orders and that counting officers are currently making the necessary arrangements. It said that no evidence had been found,
Baroness Maddock: My Lords, given that the ballot will be all-postal in the north-east referendum in the
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autumn, could the Minister ensure that there are sufficient drop-off points within rural Northumberland to ensure that people do not have to travel long distances? Noble Lords will know that I am married to the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed. In that role, I drive him round every year on his surgery tour of his constituency. Last week, many people asked us whether we could get something done to ensure that people had the opportunity to drop off their postal vote in person and not travel too far.
Lord Rooker: My Lords, the short answer to the noble Baroness's question is, yes. I cannot give precise numbers, but those matters are being considered. The matter was raised on 22 Julythat there will be sufficient drop-off points for people to place their ballot paper, which they have received by post, at an appropriate and convenient location.
Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, broadening the subject slightly, could the Minister tell noble Lords what, other than political considerations, are the criteria by which the Government decide on having referendums on regional assemblies in some parts of the country but not in others?
Lord Rooker: My Lords, I know that I shall get myself into trouble with the noble Lord for saying this, but a few weeks ago the powers that be in this place sent everyone a note that said that supplementary questions should be confined to the subject of the original Question. I have nothing to add to what I have already said.
Baroness Knight of Collingtree: My Lords, on the particular Question that the House is addressing, how concerned is the Minister about the clear allegations of fraud in Birmingham in particulara place that he and I know well? Is that not something that has greatly concerned the people of Birmingham, because the proof seems to be very clear?
It is the most risk-free area of the country. I am not in a positionfor the reasons that I have just given, notwithstanding the fact that I am not briefed on the issueto speak about anything other than the north-east referendum.
In relation to the earlier question that I was asked, our intention is to have one drop-off point for every 50,000 voters, and more at the counting officer's discretionso at least the constituencies would be covered.
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, taking into account the Electoral Commission's report, do the Government
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have any proposals to go forward with further all-postal pilots in the local elections next year, given among other things that that is a very possible date for the next general election?
Lord Rooker: My Lords, all that I can say on that matter is that at some time during the course of next week my right honourable friend Nick Raynsford will make a Statement in the other place in relation to the other two regions.
Lord Rooker: My Lords, as I have said, that matter is dealt with in the two-page report of the Electoral Commission on its website. That region has more experience, because there have been more postal pilots in the north-east region than any other region in the country. Bearing in mind that it is quite a small region in terms of percentage of population, the figure is quite high. As I have said, the commission's report states:
"To the Commission's knowledge, no allegations of electoral fraud made in the North East in relation to the June all-postal pilot scheme have led to formal prosecutions . . . The public is more positive about all-postal voting",
With all the background and reasons given in the Electoral Commission's report, it also makes the pointI accept thisthat Parliament had already approved the issue. However, the Government said that if there was opposition by the Electoral Commission, we would not proceed. That is what we meant; but it has turned out not to be the case with regard to the north-east.
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