|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. Leslie: I am not sure that I can answer that last question in parliamentary terms, but I agree that even the sky is not the limit when it comes to the double standards and inconsistency in the arguments pursued by other parties. When the commission's advice suits them, they will uphold it; when it does not suit them, they will not uphold it.
If the Opposition parties recognise the arrangements that are in place, they will see that the Electoral Commission is there to advise, but ultimately Government and Parliament have to make the final decisions. We make decisions in full cognisance of the advice that is available to us but also with an eye to the fact that we are accountable to those who elect us, unlike, of course, those in the other Chamber.
On the issue of scale, which concerned Members in the other place, it would be perverse to ignore the plans for October's all-postal referendum on elected regional assembliesindeed, the Electoral Commission supports all-postal votingso proceeding in the north-west, the north-east and Yorkshire clearly makes good sense. We have answered questions and made proposals to placate worries about fraud, and the Electoral Commission, the returning officers and the police are all keen to work together to make all-postal voting a success. Extensions of the offence of personation have been included in the Bill, and election officials have other new powers to crack down on any hint of malpractice. It is extremely odd that Opposition parties in the Lords should say in the same breath that they are prepared to see all-postal voting in two regions, but not in a further two. All the queries raised have been about the system and nature of postal voting, including specious worries about fraud, which can be answered and ameliorated satisfactorily. That is entirely different from suggesting that a greater problem is presented by having four regions as opposed to two. If their lordships thought that the arrangements for all-postal voting were unsafe, why are they happy with two regions but not three or four? Scale presents few issues or problems, yet their lordships failed to address that question.
All-postal voting in only two regions could result in fewer people voting by post than was the case in the last round of local election pilots in 2003a backward step which would be inexplicable to the many members of the public who are keen on all-postal voting. There is little more to be said about the matter, as the House of Commons has expressed its view, and should do so again tonight. By delaying the Bill, their lordships are jeopardising the crucial preparation period before elections. Returning officers need time to prepare, contract and put their plans in place, and they have asked Parliament to make a decision now on which regions will go ahead. By supporting the proposals, the
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath) (Con): Cracks in the Government edifice have started to appear with the first Government concession. Although it is welcome, it does not go nearly far enough, and the Minister, as usual, has tried to skate over the Electoral Commission's true view. Only a few days ago, in the Chamber, we referred to a letter to him from Sam Younger, the chairman of the Electoral Commission, who, I remind him, said that
There are two fundamental reasons why we and the other place must stand firm. First, it is irresponsible to operate a so-called pilot scheme in nearly half of England. Almost half the regions will hold combined European parliamentary and local elections in June, when pilot schemes should be designed to generate evidence on a system of voting that is new, innovative and by no means guaranteed secure. The independent Electoral Reform Society has said, as the Minister is well aware, that for the first time in 130 years there is an opportunity, sadly, for large-scale electoral fraud.
Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab): There was a pilot scheme during the last local elections in my constituency, Blyth Valley. When I asked the returning officer afterwards how it went, he said he was amazed at how correct the ballot was and at the fact that there was little, if any, fraud.
Mr. Hawkins: That is not the experience of many who spoke in the previous debates on this[Interruption.] The Deputy Prime Minister continues to shout from a sedentary position. I refer him to the detailed speeches of the noble Lord Greaves in several debates about wholesale fraud in various areas
Mr. David Watts (St. Helens, North) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins). Will he refer to the commission's report on the pilot schemes that were conducted both in my own constituency and in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell), and acknowledge that the report indicated that there was no evidence whatever that fraud had been committed? Will he deal with that specific point? I cannot see that he is providing any evidence to justify his claims.
Mr. Hawkins: I can certainly respond to the hon. Gentleman. The Electoral Commission's own report on the matter raises concerns about fraud, specifically in relation to the north-west. The commission points out that there may well be criminal trials arising from some of the pending allegations, and some of those trials might coincide with the forthcoming elections. That was one of the reasons why the commission was so concerned about the north-west.
Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): I heard the Deputy Prime Minister shouting across the Floor of the House, "Where's the evidence?" I am sure he is acquainted with the Alden committee report relating to Birmingham, which has a Labour council. I shall refer to that later, if I catch Madam Deputy Speaker's eye. I should be very surprised if the Deputy Prime Minister does not know about that report, in which Mr. Alden stated that matters had become so bad that the rules that exist in Northern Ireland had to be applied, and the police went on to say that the postal voting system had few major checks or controls. The situation in Birmingham at the time was a scandal, and I am surprised that the Deputy Prime Minister does not seem to be aware of it.
Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Before the hon. Gentleman replies, I would prefer this short debate to be conducted in an orderly manner, without Members on either side shouting from sedentary positions.
Mr. Hawkins: I am grateful for that, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Government are showing that they wish to ignore the advice of their own creation, the Electoral Commission, which was able to recommend unequivocally only two pilot areas. It has done the research. During the debates in another place, Lord Greaves highlighted specific problems in the two regions that the Government are seeking to insist on, where there are serious concerns about fraud, electoral malpractice and intimidation. I refer hon. Members to columns 12 to 18 of 26 January in another place. I also refer hon. Members to what Lord Greaves said in the debate this afternoon, when he repeated his concerns.
Andrew Bennett: Will the hon. Gentleman separate two issues? There has been some evidence of fraud under the existing postal vote system, but that will apply whatever we decide tonight. However, there is no evidence of fraud in the pilot. There is a strong argument that if there is a high turnout, which we could get as a result of postal ballots, any fraud will become much less significant.