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Mr. Kaufman: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You will be aware, as will the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), that I am a member of the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission. The Electoral Commission sends me all its documents for careful perusal.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): The right hon. Gentleman is experienced enough to know that that is not point of order and, equally, experienced enough to know that he has got it on the record.
Mr. Heath: As I said, there is no evidence that the right hon. Gentleman has read the Electoral Commission's report, which is perhaps worth repeating. Let me get away from that to say that I welcome the Government's move in incorporating at least some of the changes recommended in another place in terms of declaration of identity. That is helpful. It means that we do not have two different systems applying in terms of postal votes, whether in respect of these pilots or every other election happening on the same day, at the same time and in the same way. That seems to me to be sensible, up to the point where we have the improvement recommended by the Electoral Commission, which I wholeheartedly support and which involves a pre-signature system.
Mr. Heath: I shall give way to the Minister in a moment. The pre-signature system will provide for better voter identification, but it clearly cannot be in place for these elections. We hope, however, that it will be for future elections.
Mr. Leslie: The hon. Gentleman has acknowledged that the Government are reluctantly conceding on the declaration of identity, but will he also acknowledge that we are conceding thatsomething he has been pressing forin the face of the advice from the Electoral
Mr. Heath: The Minister has the difficulty of arguing two contrary positionsapparently accepting what he says is the Electoral Commission's advice on the one hand while, on the other, rejecting it entirely.
I take what is, I hope, a more pragmatic and sensible view: I agree with the Electoral Commission's intention, which is clearly stated in its important document as to where it wants to get to. We do not think that we are there yet; the Minister knows perfectly well that we are not there yet. We have a holding position until the next election, when, I hope, we will have a proper system for pre-registration of voters, which will eliminate the potential for fraud in that area without our having the rather cumbersome system that none of us wants.
Mr. Watts: The hon. Gentleman seems concerned not to cause confusion among the electorate. Voters in St. Helens have already used a postal ballot. They will be asked to participate in a traditional ballot twice, then go back to a postal ballot. If that is not confusing, I do not know what isand it is exactly what the commission's report said should be avoided.
Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman makes his intervention at entirely the wrong point, on a matter that I have not yet addressed. Nevertheless, I will answer his point. Exactly the same argument could just as easily be made by me, in pursuit of my constituents' interests. They had an all-postal ballot for South Somerset district council but will be prohibited by the legislation that the hon. Gentleman is supporting this evening from an all-postal ballot in the European elections.
Mr. Heath: Let the hon. Gentleman listen. I have said all along that one should either have a pilot scheme that enables one to address some of the outstanding issues or a UK-wide postal ballotin which I personally can see some merit.
The Government propose neither. They say, "We will not have a proper pilot scheme because we will not have the two regions that the commission proposed. We will poll the whole north of England. Anybody north of the Trent will have an all-postal ballot. Anybody south of the Trent will be prohibited." Where is the logic for the constituents whom many of us seek to represent?
If the Government had said they wanted a UK-wide, all-postal ballot, we would have raised exactly the same concerns about the potential for personation and fraud but at least there would have been some logic. There is no logic in the Government having a pilot scheme that is not a pilot scheme and determining a region that constitutes half the local authorities in Englandsaying that an all-postal ballot is not available for the other half. Neither will one be available to Scotland, despite the fact that it was the runner-up in the Electoral Commission report, or Wales. It was not even
Every argument advanced by the Government has been turned on its head in the next breaththey have been arguing in two directions at once. They know that this development is in the interests of political expediency and nothing else; otherwise, they would look for a pilot scheme or a UK-wide election. After all, we are talking about a single national campaign in which half the electorate will go the polls two or three weeks before the rest of the country. They will watch the same television programmes and see the same campaign unfolding.
Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman prays in aid the situation in Scotland. He obviously does not take into account the fact that electoral registration officers in Scotland said that they could not cope. Although Scotland was possibly recommended, the electoral officers were the barrier more than anything else. That was not a matter of political choice but dictated by the logistics of the exercise.
Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman adduces an argument which in other debates was hotly contested by his right hon. and hon. Friends, who said that that claim was absolute nonsense and that the particular returning officer who gave that indication did not represent the advice of returning officers across Scotland. They said that Scotland had come third and was entitled to the opportunity to engage in this great experiment.
Mr. Heath: They were not positively recommended by the Electoral Commission. I accept that they were listed as having potential, which was not realised. I have potential to open the batting for England, which has not been realised yet and is unlikely to be realised in the immediate future. Nevertheless, the Government have chosen to take that line.
There were arguments of the Government's own devising for not including those regions in the pilot scheme: the number of local authority elections on that day, the complexity of the region, and the potential difficultiesthey are no more than potential difficultiesof fraud. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) made the point that the potential for fraud is diluted because it is such a large area. Of course, he is absolutely right in terms of the European parliamentary elections. At the same time, however, every single person voting in European parliamentary elections also votes in wards in local authority elections. That is where the potential mischief applies and where we must tread carefully if we are to maintain the integrity of the voting system.
I believe that the Government have made an important concession this evening, and it is the first of two concessions that they will make before the end of this week[Interruption.] I hear the comment from the Labour Benches that that is not so. We shall see. I believe that they will be forced to recognise that the Electoral Commission's advice on determining what areas should be available is not to be swept aside for political convenience, and not to be arbitrarily ignored. I believe that we will come to a satisfactory conclusion. We are only halfway there this evening. I suspect that we will conclude the business when this matter has been debated one more time in another place, and we shall all return believing that we have done a good job in improving this legislation.
I want to develop the point that was first raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). Undoubtedly, there is a contradiction in the position being adopted by the collective Opposition. On the one hand, it is all right to overturn the advice of the Electoral Commission on the issue of signatures, but on the other, it is not all right on the issue of postal votes. The only aspect of my right hon. Friend's contribution with which I disagreed was that he minced his words so much in his criticism of the Opposition, and particularly of the way in which the Liberal Democrats have two stances. That was revealed in response to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) in which she referred to quotes from a Member of the European Parliament, Mr. Chris Davies, who purports to represent my constituency, too. That particular individual argues against postal ballots on the basis that it is a provision for lazy votershe does not consider elderly people, shift workers, including many of my constituents, elderly people, people with families and so on.