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Mr. Leslie: The hon. Gentleman says that the Electoral Commission recommended against the north-west and Yorkshire. Is he absolutely sure that that is a correct representation of the Electoral Commission's view?
Mr. Hawkins: As the Minister knows full well, we have said that the Electoral Commission was able unequivocally to recommend only two regions. The Government are ignoring their own Electoral Commission's recommendations. The Government are insisting on these four pilot regions for their own reasons. The Minister in another place, Lord Filkin, made it perfectly clear that he does not believe that the clearly-evidenced lack of enthusiasm of regional returning officers or the possibility of malpractice should be any impediment to piloting the all-postal schemes in the two additional areas. The Electoral Commission clearly begs to differ, as Sam Younger's recent letter to the Minister makes absolutely clear. We remain absolutely adamant that only the two regions unequivocally recommended by the Electoral Commissionthe north-east and the east midlandsshould be pilots.
Mr. Watts: May I point out that the overwhelming view of people in the north-west, as received in representations, is support for the idea of all-postal ballots? Will the hon. Gentleman deal with my original point? Can he give us any evidence of fraud and tell us whether any prosecutions are going ahead as a result of the pilot schemes that were launched in the north-west and in other areas?
Mr. Hawkins: I dealt with that point in my earlier answer to the hon. Gentleman. If he reads the Electoral Commission's report, he will find that it deals specifically with the concerns about possible fraud that were so adequately set out by Lord Greaves, who has extensive experience of elections in the north-west. That is further evidence of why the Electoral Commission is right.
Mr. Cash: Does my hon. Friend accept that the real issue often turns on the electoral roll? A serious problem has arisen in that context. Far too many people are going on to the electoral roll, which appears to have some connection with the latest immigration problems.
Given that these are pilotsexperimental trial schemesit seems sensible to have them only in the two regions where the Government's own Electoral Commission is confident about using the all-postal scheme, and where all the regional returning officers support it and there are no fears about fraud. If the pilots are successful, next time round more enthusiasm and confidence might be expressed by regional returning
I welcome the Government's concessions on houses in multiple occupation. They have not gone far enough, but they are at least recognising some of the arguments that were advanced by Opposition Members here and in another place.
We feel that the Government are taking an unjustifiable risk by insisting on four pilot regions against the recommendation of the Electoral Commission, which, as Sam Younger's letter makes clear, is still concerned about that. It is vital to balance any plans that the Government have for innovation against the security and safety of our democratic process. We welcome the Government's small concession, but they have not gone far enough. We shall continue to maintain our position and to vote against their continuing attempts to impose this measure.
Mr. Kaufman: I elicited from my hon. Friend the Minister the fact that the House of Lords is insisting on excluding these two regions because, in the contention of the Opposition, the Government are going against the wishes of the Electoral Commission; but there were cheers from the Liberal Democrat Benches when my hon. Friend said that he was going to make a concession that went against the wishes of the Electoral Commission. What we get from that rabble oppositeor those several rabbles oppositeis not honest, open, clear reasons for opposing the measure, but adventitious excuses to avoid something that they do not want to happen. They do not want to give more people more opportunities to vote in elections that they are scared of losing. They want as few people as possible to vote[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) jeers, but it would be very difficult for the Conservative vote in my constituency to get any lower than it is. It has almost disappeared there, although there is still just a little scope for further reduction.
Let us be clear about this. My hon. Friend the Minister is right when he says that the pilot scheme is wanted overwhelmingly in the north-west. That has been made absolutely clear by my constituents and those of many other hon. Members.
Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that one of the Liberal Democrat Euro MPs in his region, Mr. Chris Davies, has stated his reason for opposing the all-postal ballot? It is:
The hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) talked about fraud. We in the Gorton constituency are well accustomed to what fraud is. We are well accustomed to the Liberal Democrats claiming that they got £120,000 for the Anson Cabin project, when in fact I got it with the assistance of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. In Gorton, we are accustomed to lies, cheating, hypocrisy and misrepresentation at that level, from that rabble. As I have said, if we prevail tonight and get the pilot scheme, the Liberal Democrats will say that they wanted it, that they love it and that it is the best possible way of proceeding in our local and European elections on 10 June.
Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that my constituents will find it difficult to understand why money should be invested in running a postal ballot for the referendum on a regional parliament in the autumn of this year, if a similar investment cannot be made in June for the European elections? It would seem sensible to my constituents that one lot of investment should be used for two elections.
Let us be clear about this. What we are seeing from the two Opposition parties is not a consistent, honourable approach to elections. They want as few people as possible to vote, because the only way that they win council elections is on very low polls.
Mr. Osborne: Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the Conservative MPs in the north-westand probably the Liberal Democrat MPs as wellhad the highest turnouts in their constituencies at the general election, and that the Labour MPs had the lowest? The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) had the lowest in the country. I dare say that the turnout in Gorton was pretty low, too.
Mr. Kaufman: But it is quality. When I was first elected to the House of Commons in 1970, the Conservatives got 10,000 votes from an electorate of 43,000. In 2001, they got 2,700 votes from an electorate of 67,000. In the local elections in Manchester, the Conservatives are hard put to it in my six wards to get into four figures. They are afraid, just as the Liberal Democrats are afraid, that they will be found out if people get the opportunity to vote in large numbers. Well, they are being found out tonight.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): One of the misfortunes of these occasions is that it is almost impossible to put any new arguments on such matters once they have been debated at length in the House and in another place. We have heard no new arguments from the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), who seems to have taken a bitter pill before arriving in the Chamber. He showed no evidence whatever of having read the Electoral Commission's report before commenting on it, which is a cause of great sadness.