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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mrs. Anne McGuire): My right hon. Friend and I meet regularly with Scottish Executive Ministers to discuss a wide range of issues. We welcome publication of the index as a valuable tool in tackling poverty for both reserved and devolved areas of responsibility.
Mr. Marshall: May I say to my hon. Friend that I am 63 years old and live in the Shettleston constituency[Laughter.] Adult male life expectancy there is just that63. Tragically, because this is no laughing matter, that is 14 years fewer than the UK national average, and it is partly due to poverty in the area. Six of the 10 most deprived areas in Scotland are in Glasgow's east end, where 20,000 people are unemployed. Does she therefore agree that the No. 1 priority must be the education and training of the unemployed, and will she assure the House that she and the Government will do all that they can to help the Scottish Executive to deal with and tackle this very serious situation?
Mrs. McGuire: In spite of the raucous response to my hon. Friend's question, by drawing attention to his age he makes a serious point about the difficulties in some parts of the United Kingdom, including his constituency. I hope that he will take confidence from the fact that we are tackling some of the major issues, which are mainly related to unemployment and poverty, not only in his constituency but across Scotland. More children have dropped out of poverty over the past seven years of a Labour Government, following the dramatic increases that had occurred in children and their families dropping into low income. I hope that that will give him reassurance for the future. I wish him many future happy returns.
The Advocate-General for Scotland (Dr. Lynda Clark):
Since 25 May, 48 devolution issues have been intimated to me. Thirty-six of those related to criminal matters, including pre-trial delay, self-incrimination under the Road Traffic Act 1988, regulatory fisheries offences and evidential issues. In the civil sphere, 12 issues were intimated, 11 of which related to actions for
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damages or judicial review in respect of prison conditions, while the last concerned a challenge to the discretion of the procurator fiscal.
Ann McKechin: May I ask my hon. and learned Friend whether she has had any discussions with the new Children's Commissioner for Scotland, Dr. Kathleen Marshall, who was referred to earlier today, in connection with the concerns that she has expressed about human rights issues arising from the new antisocial behaviour legislation that has recently passed through the Scottish Parliament? If she has not had any such discussions, does she intend to meet her later this summer?
The Advocate-General for Scotland: To date, I have had no discussions with the commissioner. The matters that my hon. Friend raises relate to policy, which would usually be discussed with policy Ministers, not with me. Obviously, were there any legal issues to be addressed, that might be a different matter.
Miss McIntosh: Has the hon. and learned Lady's advice been sought, however, on the positioning and the legal situation as regards the construction of wind farms in international shipping lanes in Scotland? In the event of a wind farm being built and a fisherman colliding with it, who would be responsible for that collision?
Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (Lab/Co-op): May I congratulate the Advocate-General on the splendid job that she is doing? She will be a very difficult act to follow. Will she also pass on my congratulations to the Lord Advocate on the great improvement that there has been in the Scottish Procurator Fiscal Service? Can she also tell him that if he needs any heavyweight support, I will be free after the next election?
The Advocate-General for Scotland: I can only say that those kind words were entirely unsolicited. I shall be more than happy to pass on my right hon. Friend's good wishes and thanks to the Lord Advocate.
The Advocate-General for Scotland (Dr. Lynda Clark):
In addition to the human rights issues raised in the devolution issue minutes to which I referred some moments ago, as a matter of routine such matters were
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considered by me in my role under section 33 of the Scotland Act 1998 and in my capacity as a United Kingdom Law Officer.
Mr. Dalyell : Given that Mr. Eddie McKechnie, acting in furtherance of the human rights of Mr. Megrahi, is hopeful that the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission is giving the most serious and painstaking consideration to that complex case, does my hon. and learned Friend think that the House of Commons will have a role when the commission reports? I do not criticise Members of the Scottish Parliament, but it is clear that none of them have bothered to become immersed in what is a very complex issue.
The Advocate-General for Scotland: I am sure that many Members of this Parliament, as individuals, will read the commission's report with great interest when it is available. I think that these matters will generally be regarded as devolved, but I am sure that, with his great experience, my hon. Friend will find a way of raising the issues that concern him in the House.
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): Will the Advocate-General review the answers that she has given in the House over the past six months? Does she believe that her Question Time has added anything to parliamentary accountability?
The Advocate-General for Scotland: I think that Question Time has resulted in a most interesting and stimulating debate. I have certainly enjoyed it. I am particularly grateful to Opposition Members, who have raised so many questions with me. I shall be delighted to review the answers, but I remind Members that the conventions which prohibit me from giving details of opinions are not created by methey are long-standing conventions, which Members have also supported.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie):
The recent trials of postal voting in four regions of England proved worth while. Turnouts increased throughout the country, but were appreciably higher in the all-postal areas, where they doubled in comparison with those for the previous European elections. The Electoral Commission is statutorily obliged to evaluate the pilots. No doubt lessons will be learned from its report, which is due in mid-September.
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Ann Winterton: Experience has shown that turnouts increase initially after all-postal ballots, but then fall back. Turnout increased on this occasion because there were two elections on the same day, the European and the local elections. Will the Minister acknowledge the incidence of costly administrative chaos, postal delays in some areas and alleged fraud? Will he ensure that while opportunities for postal voting will continue to be provided, the traditional democratic right to vote in person at a polling station will always be maintained in the future?
Mr. Leslie: Of course the right to cast a vote in the polling booth was maintained in the all-postal ballots, via the assistance and delivery points. There was an issue over whether there were enough of those, and we could think about that for the future.
Part of the reason for the increased turnout was our decision to combine the European and local elections, but comparison of pilot with non-pilot regions shows an appreciably higher turnout than under the conventional arrangements. We organise pilots because we want to learn lessons. We are trying out these arrangements because we want to find ways of dealing with the historic lower turnouts that have occurred in recent elections. I think that that is the right thing to do, and it has certainly proved worth while.
Keith Vaz: Turnout was up in all three Leicester constituencies, especially Leicester, South, where a lot of people turned out to vote against the cuts instituted by the Liberal Democrat administration. However, will my hon. Friend look at the guidance in respect of making ballot boxes available on the day for those who missed the postal deadline? Only one ballot box was provided by the returning officer, which was at the town hall in the city centre. Parking was extremely difficult, so many people could not return their ballot papers. Could we not have, at the very minimum, a ballot box in each parliamentary constituency to make them more accessible to those who cannot vote except on polling day?
The point of having an all-postal pilot was to test the extent to which the dispatch of ballot papers to the electorate through the post helped to make it easier and more convenient for them to vote. If we had provided the same number of polling stations as before, it would have negated slightly the effect of testing the efficacy of all-postal balloting. I accept that many hon. Members have noted that they would have preferred more assistance and delivery points, and that is obviously something that will come out in the Electoral Commission's evaluation.
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"I am confident that the deadlines to hand over packs to the Royal Mail will be met."[Official Report, 27 May 2004; Vol. 421, c. 1735.]
Will he confirm that the contracts let with Royal Mail required those packs to be in its hands on 25 May, two days before he made that statement? Will he apologise to the House for clearly misleading it in that respect? Will he tell us whether any penalty clauses are attached to the Royal Mail contracts, and if so, who will be responsible: the printers, the Government, whose fault this whole debacle was, or the hard-pressed council tax payers of the north of England?
Mr. Leslie: What a shame that, in attempting to perpetuate the story about the supposed chaos and shambles of all-postal voting that both Opposition parties have tried to peddle, the hon. Gentleman seeks to accuse me of somehow misleading the House, which I certainly did not. I underlined the fact that in law, the ballot papers needed to be dispatched to the deliverers from the returning officers by midnight on 1 June. That is in fact what happened to all intents and purposes, and within a few hours of that deadline, the papers were issued. There may well have been different contractual arrangements from area to area and from returning officer to returning officer, but the legal position and legal requirements that I set out were absolutely clear. I am glad that that was a success and that we were able to ensure that those papers were issued, to all intents and purposes, by that deadline.
Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government's two main priorities in using postal voting are to ensure that a larger number of people use their vote, which is good for democracy, and to ensure the integrity of the vote? Later in the year, when we have the report showing the advantages, the disadvantages and where we can improve on what was done in June, may we have a full debate on it? There is merit in taking this matter forward and we can learn from what happened this month.
My hon. Friend makes some reasonable points and I am sure that we will debate the Electoral Commission's report and evaluation in due course. From some of the comments from Opposition parties, one would have thought that we were criminal in trying to address the problems of lower turnout, engagement and participation by the electorate. We have come up with the solution of trying out new techniques to engage the public, while the Opposition parties have developed no ideas or proposals whatever to engage the public more in the electoral system. That is a great pity.
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Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon) (Con): With allegations of corruption, vote tampering and voter manipulation now growing, with 20,000 spoiled ballot papers in the north-west region alone, and with concerns about the huge confusion emanating from postal voting, is the Minister really going to maintain that a short-term, marginal, 5 per cent. improvement in turnout is worth the collapse of confidence in our voting system that postal voting could entail?
Mr. Leslie: The issues about spoiled ballot papers are separate from the constant repetition of claims of fraud and malpractice. I note that, again, the hon. Gentleman has produced no evidence, but is simply perpetuating rumour, story and things that have been heard on the grapevine. If that is good enough for the Opposition, it is certainly not good enough for the police, who need to see the evidence immediatelyif the hon. Gentleman has those reports. I trust that he will now produce such evidence immediately to the police, if he has it. There have been no charges yet in respect of any electoral offences in the pilot regions and no legal proceedings, despite the scare stories and the doom and gloom that we heard from Opposition Members.
I accept that the Electoral Commission will need to look at the question of spoiled ballot papers; the witness statement requirement that was foisted on the Bill by Opposition Members may well be responsible for some of that.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): We all want to boost turnout, but why can we not pilot weekend voting? Why can we not pilot Thursday voting, but make Thursday a public holiday? There are alternative ways of approaching this issue, without jeopardising the secrecy of the ballot.
Mr. Leslie: Nobody has jeopardised the secrecy of the ballot, but I accept that my hon. Friend has other suggestions that he would like to try out. In fact, we trialled weekend voting in Watford in 2003, but no appreciable effect was proven there. The right approach is to test new arrangements that make it easier and more convenient for people to participate in elections, while always maintaining the security and safety of the electoral process.
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