HC Deb 10 June 2004 vol 422 cc405-17 12.31 pm
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con)

Will the Leader of the House give us the business for next week?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Peter Hain)

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 14 JUNE—Second Reading of the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill [Lords ].

TUESDAY 15—Opposition half-day [10th Allotted Day] (Part Two). There will be a half-day debate entitled "The Failure of the Government's Transport Policy" on an Opposition motion, followed by motion to approve European documents relating to the financial perspective and to the structural and cohesion funds.

WEDNESDAY 16 JUNE—A debate on European affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

THURSDAY 17 JUNE—Second Reading of the Public Audit (Wales) Bill [Lords ].

FRIDAY 18 JUNE—Private Members Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will be:

MONDAY 21 JUNE—Second Reading of the Health Protection Agency Bill [Lords ].

TUESDAY 22 JUNE—Opposition day [13th Allotted Day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

WEDNESDAY 23 JUNE—Consideration of Lords amendments, followed by a debate on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

THURSDAY 24 JUNE—Estimates, [3rd Allotted Day]. Subject to be confirmed by the Liaison Committee

FRIDAY 25 JUNE—The House will not be sitting.

Mr. Heald

I thank the Leader of the House for the business. Can he give us any news about when the debates promised by the Foreign Secretary on Zimbabwe and Iraq will take place?

I pay tribute to the electoral registration officers who are working hard today, and in difficult circumstances this year, to ensure that the elections take place. The Leader of the House will know of the widespread concern in the House and the country about the fraud, intimidation and sheer incompetence that has marred the postal ballot for the European elections. Police are apparently investigating a raft of complaints, which range from heads of families filling in ballot papers for the whole family; ballot papers being collected door-to-door by Labour party officials in breach of guidelines from the Electoral Commission; a candidate alleged to have collected ballot papers for an entire family and claiming that he had done nothing wrong; one in seven people not receiving a ballot paper at all while others received more than one; and an employer threatening to sack staff unless they voted Labour. The Leader of the House was warned in advance that this was folly, particularly with so little time to prepare. We need an urgent statement setting out how the Government intend to address what is being called the fistful of ballots fiasco and how many legal challenges are likely to follow. Before he says that more people have voted, will he admit that the effect of electoral fraud is always that there are more votes in the ballot box? But we want them to be genuine.

May we have two statements about false figures put out by the Government? First, can we expect an oral statement of apology and correction from the Minister with responsibility for the armed forces? He told us he had not received reports from international bodies about abuse in Iraq, but then he was forced to change his tune. He told us that there were only 33 cases of brutality being investigated, but it now turns out that there were 75. Is it not wrong to correct such information in a written statement? Should he not come to the House and face the music?

Secondly, a senior Home Office official told Swansea Crown court yesterday that immigration could be six times higher than official figures and that there were no serious removal arrangements for illegal immigrants. May we have an urgent statement on the true position and an explanation of why Ministers have not been frank with the House? Like the country, we have been let down by Labour.

Mr. Hain

On the question of the debates on Zimbabwe and Iraq, it is intended to have a debate on Zimbabwe within the next few weeks. As soon as I am able to give a date to the hon. Gentleman and to the House, I will do so. We have made it clear that that is the Government's intention. On Iraq, when the time is right, yes, there will be a debate. As the hon. Gentleman knows, and I am sure he and the whole House will welcome it, the United Nations Security Council resolution was unanimously adopted, providing for the transfer of sovereignty to a new Iraqi Administration. They will take office at the end of the month and there will thereafter be an opportunity to assess the success of the Government's policy on Iraq, which has been to ensure that Iraq was liberated from Saddam Hussein and that the Iraqis can take control of their own destiny, which Saddam's murderous and dictatorial rule had prevented them from doing.

On postal voting, I join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to electoral registration officers. Yes, a series of allegations has been made and that is being investigated, in some cases by the police. If any fraud is discovered, it will be dealt with in the appropriate way. As a politician, the hon. Gentleman knows that it is not the case that elections under the previous system were perfectly in order in every respect. He knows from Northern Ireland, for example, that there was a regular slogan, "Vote early, vote often". He knows that there were other instances of postal vote fraud and electoral fraud. Indeed—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Let the Leader of the House reply.

Mr. Hain

Where there are instances of malpractice or possibly fraud, they should be dealt with harshly. There is no question about that. However, the idea that all elections in the past have been run perfectly and that unscrupulous individuals or politicians did not seek to exploit them is an illusion. I remember more than 30 years ago a Liberal by-election organiser saying proudly that he had voted in every Liberal by-election. I remember many cases of people alleging various kinds of fraud in postal votes. In some ways, it is easier to go into a polling station and impersonate someone when one does not have to sign and have that signature witnessed than it could be under a postal votes procedure.

Fourteen million people have been given the opportunity to vote from the comfort of their homes in the biggest exercise in spreading democratic opportunity anywhere in Britain—and probably anywhere in the world—in a series of pilots that we need to assess. We also need to find out whether any mistakes or procedures need to be rectified. I should have thought that every good democrat would welcome the possibility that turnout will be significantly up on the 1999 European elections. What are the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats afraid of? Are they afraid of a high turnout? That is the issue; they are afraid of a high turnout. Although we must put right any malpractice, the increase in democratic participation is welcome. The Electoral Commission says that there is no reason to believe that the pilot schemes have resulted in an increase in the incidence of electoral offences.

On the armed forces, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) knows that the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence has set out the facts, corrected the record and explained what happened. Amnesty International welcomes that statement and the increased investigations as a result of the verification exercise conducted by the Royal Military Police and the Ministry of Defence. The record of investigations has been corrected and no attempt has been made to hide that correction. The synthetic anger of the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire is just that—synthetic.

An immigration official has made an allegation. The truth is that asylum applications have halved in recent months under this Government's policy of cracking down on illegal human trafficking. The number of returnees—removal—has doubled, which shows that the Government's successful policies are enabling us to take control of that worldwide phenonmenon. When we introduced those policies, the Conservatives often opposed them in this House and, in particular, in the House of Lords.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD)

In the light of the changeover, does the Leader of the House think that the time for a debate on Iraq rapidly approaches? We must understand both the future deployment of British troops and the engagement of British agencies.

The Leader of the House's reply on postal votes suggests that a debate is required. He was anxious to debate the matter himself, so he should accept that a debate is required.

The Government should consider calling a full-day debate on the environment. Such debates have mostly been left to Liberal Democrats and Back Benchers. The Government claim that the environment is a major feature of their policy, so they should call a debate to explain how they intend to meet their own targets.

In advance of next week's formation of the all-party group on deafness, will the Leader of the House ask the Department for Work and Pensions to make a statement to the House on Government action to promote the recognition of sign language? The Council of Europe has apparently asked the Government to organise such work—the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) is on the Front Bench, and I appreciate her involvement. I understand that the Government will hold a conference on the matter in conjunction with the Council of Europe and it would be helpful if a statement were made to the House and further information were given about what I hope is a positive Government initiative.

Finally, I ask the Leader of the House whether the Government will indicate their policy on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development review of corruption in British business worldwide, because French inspectors will carry out the peer review in this country during the next few weeks. The Government have indicated that they favour legislation to implement the UN charter on corruption, but they have not said when that will happen and have not introduced any draft proposals. Will the Government come to the House soon and explain the exact policy to be implemented to deal with our obligations to stamp out corruption?

Mr. Hain

On deafness and sign language, I pay tribute to the work of the hon. Gentleman, who pays close attention to and raises that matter in the House. I will certainly draw his point to the attention of the Secretary of State and examine the extent to which we can meet his wishes.

On the OECD review of corruption in business, the hon. Gentleman knows and probably applauds the fact that British business is renowned internationally for being relatively, if not entirely, free of corruption compared with other businesses worldwide. Nevertheless, the issue must be dealt with and the Secretary of State is e twinning it closely.

The environment is regularly debated in both Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions and other debates. The Secretary of State will obviously want to consider the opportunities to hold a wider debate, but the hon. Gentleman can apply for one in the normal way.

I have indicated that a time will come when it will be proper for the House to debate Iraq and the Government are considering that point. However, the United Nations Security Council has just agreed a resolution and the transfer of power is only weeks away. The House will have an opportunity to take stock of the policy and we are bearing that point in mind.

Let me return to the subject of postal votes. The Government will assess the whole experiment and the results will be reported to the House. It was an experiment—legislation was introduced to allow pilots in four English regions. What is exciting is that 14 million voters have been given an opportunity to vote from the comfort of their own homes, and more and more are doing so. It appears that 2 million more are voting in this way than voted under the old system in 1999.

I must emphasise that the number of complaints and instances of malpractice is tiny compared with that figure of 14 million—the number of people voting from the safety and comfort of their own homes, or having the opportunity to do so. According to the Electoral Commission, there have been few cases of fraud or malpractice; and, incidentally, allegations have been made about every party in that regard.

I stress that there will be a proper assessment. That was the whole point of introducing pilots rather than setting new legislation in concrete. We wanted to see what lessons could be learned. I find it interesting that it is the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats who want to deny people that opportunity to vote from the comfort of their own homes, when it could result in a higher turnout and therefore a better quality of democracy.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) ( Lab)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that among a few complaints received by some Labour Members is one about the requirement for a witness to signatures in the postal ballot pilot scheme? Is it true that that requirement was included because the Tories and the Liberals ganged up to force people signing to obtain a witness?

The Leader of the House has given us the agenda for the next 10 days. That takes us almost to July. Will he confirm that at some point in July he will announce the introduction of a fox hunting ban? Time is running out.

Mr. Hain

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about postal voting. There was a Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition. [HON. MEMBERS: "Good."] Ah! There we have the platform for the next general election: a Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition, with the Liberal Democrats moving to the right as they have done consistently over recent months. Those two parties united in insisting on a witness to the signatures, which has caused some complications.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)


Mr. Hain

Anyone who has filled in the forms knows that to be the case. We will obviously want to review the exact circumstances, and any lessons to be learned.

As I have already made clear to my hon. Friend, who has played an honourable role in regard to the fox hunting issue for many years, the Government intend to resolve the matter. I have nothing to add to that and I have no timing announcements to make at this stage.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con)

On Monday evening the Deputy Leader of the House gave me, and the House as a whole, a firm assurance that two Procedure Committee reports would be debated on the Floor of the House before the summer recess. They are the report on Sessional Orders and resolutions—which is widely supported not only by Members but, if I may say so, by you, Mr. Speaker, and the House authorities—and the report on procedures for debate, private Members' Bills and the role of the Speaker. Will the Leader of the House confirm that they will both be debated here before the recess?

May I also support my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), the shadow Leader of the House, in requesting a debate on Zimbabwe—again, before the summer recess? The situation in that country continues to deteriorate. The dictator, Mr. Mugabe, has apparently announced that all land in Zimbabwe will be nationalised and we are deeply worried about those developments. May we please have a debate at an early date?

Mr. Hain

On the question of Zimbabwe—the hon. Gentleman has consistently raised it and properly so, given the dreadful state of that country under Robert Mugabe's regime—we intend to have a debate within the next few weeks. As soon as I am able to announce the date, I will do so. I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman encouragement. The Deputy Leader of the House has made the situation clear regarding the two reports to which the hon. Gentleman refers. There is no question but that they will have to be debated because they involve issues that are very important to the House.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend might be aware that the majority of Scots—broad-minded lot that we are—will be supporting England during the European championships. We are more broad-minded than the Scottish premier league, which, it seems, is about to deny Inverness Caledonian Thistle access to the premier league, even though it won the Scottish first division. Indeed, it did the same to Falkirk FC last year. Will he find time for a debate on this important subject, given that this looks suspiciously like uncompetitive practices by the Scottish premier league?

Mr. Hain

I am very concerned to hear about that. The Scottish Parliament is commissioning an inquiry into Scottish football, and I am sure that close notice will be taken of my hon. Friend's points. As a Welsh MP, may I join him and other Scots Members of Parliament in wishing England all the best for the European championships? I hope that the England team will be putting crosses into the box on Sunday, just as voters will be putting crosses into the box for Labour in the European elections.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con)

My postbag tells me that aerospace workers in my constituency continue to be worried at the lack of an agreement to tranche 2 of the Eurofighter programme. May I ask the Leader of the House for an urgent statement by the Secretary of State for Defence on exactly what is going on and why no decision has been reached? A year ago, an agreement was signed that enabled the RAF to take into service the first aircraft in tranche 1. We have now had a year for this matter to be resolved and there is considerable anxiety among the aerospace workers. I hope that an early statement will put their minds at rest.

Mr. Hain

I know that the Secretary of State for Defence is very mindful of the right hon. Gentleman's constituency interests in this respect, which he raises properly and with persuasion. As he knows, Defence questions will take place on Monday week-21 June—so he will be able to question the Secretary of State then.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead) (Lab/Coop)

One cannot help thinking that the rather thin programme that the Leader of the House has announced gives the Government scope to be imaginative. Perhaps he might think about having a debate on the 40,000 civil servants who form part of the slimming down operation. One rumour going around is that a slimmed-down Department commissioning Government contracts will, as a result, have less scope to place contracts with small businesses. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that that would be a most lamentable consequence of such a decision.

Mr. Hain

I am deeply pained by my hon. Friend's suggestion that it is a thin business programme; it is full of meat and important business—apart from the Opposition debates, of course. On civil servant numbers, he will doubtless want to endorse the Government's strategy of focusing public money on front-line services and of using the advantages of new technology and modern efficiency measures, many of which operate in the private sector, to reduce back-room staff and to allow individuals to transfer their skills and to take up other job opportunities, or to take early retirement if they so wish. I am sure that there is no intention that small businesses should lose out, and I would be very disturbed to discover that that was the consequence. Indeed, contracts to businesses large, medium or small should be applied on a uniform basis, according to whether or not they are competitive.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

Given the recently expressed worries about obesity, is the Leader of the House concerned that he is effectively preventing 14 million people even from walking to their local polling stations? He did say a moment ago that a full assessment is going to be made of the postal voting fiasco, and he mentioned a report back to the House. Will he give us an absolute undertaking that there will be a proper debate in this House on postal voting, and that such voting will not be extended—or, indeed, continued—until both Houses of Parliament express their full satisfaction with every detail of the postal voting regime? We cannot have this going ahead with people being unable to trust the process, and we cannot regard an increase in turnout, if it is based on fraud, as acceptable.

Mr. Hain

I strongly dispute the idea that an increase in turnout would be based on fraud. The instances of malpractice are tiny in comparison with giving 14 million people the chance to vote from the comfort of their homes. I would have thought that the right hon. Gentleman, as a parliamentary champion, would be the first in line to say that he is very worried about the consistent decrease in election turnouts since the second world war. If, as previous pilots have shown, turnout has been increased—I am sure that, by the end of today, we will know that it has increased—more people will have participated in democracy, and more people participating makes our democratic system much more legitimate. That should be seen in perspective and set against the small number of instances of malpractice that have been uncovered, and which involved officials and members of all parties.

On the right hon. Gentleman's substantive point, he knows that this legislation applies to today alone and expires after that. It is pilot legislation, and there will of course be an opportunity to debate it fully in the House after the Government, the Electoral Commission and others have made a proper assessment. There is no intention to bounce anybody into this. The intention was to improve the quality of our democracy and its legitimacy by increasing turnout. If the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are content with the remorseless decline in turnout, that says something about their view of democracy.

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op)

May I add my voice to the demand for a debate on the real benefits of all-postal ballots? Not only were they welcomed by many of my constituents on the doorstep, many of whom would otherwise have been unable to vote, the 41 per cent turnout reported in Sheffield on Wednesday constituted a significant increase that demonstrates that the Opposition's claims are completely false.

Mr. Hain

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. Indeed, I was in Sheffield last Thursday campaigning in the elections, and the turnout is very encouraging. It is only the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats who are frightened of democracy and the ballot box. Labour is proud to be a party that wants more and more people to vote, regardless of which party they vote for, although we would of course prefer that they voted Labour. Many will have the opportunity to do so as a result of the extra postal votes.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)

Could time be made available for a Minister from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to explain to the House what it is doing actively to support the case of Kenny Richey, the Scotsman on death row in Ohio, and in particular why it has yet to get around to lodging an amicus brief? There is a new urgency in Mr. Richey's case, as the campaign suffered a severe setback yesterday when the Ohio supreme court refused to rule on a point of law referred to it by the sixth circuit court of appeal.

We no longer have, an automatic right to lodge an amicus brief, but of course application can be made to the court to do so. If the FCO were to take that opportunity, it would send the clear signal that people in this country are not prepared to sit back and see the execution of one of our citizens, whose case has been described by Amnesty International as one of the most compelling cases of it innocence that it has come across.

Mr. Hain

The hon. Gentleman has made the point very eloquently and with passion, and I know that the Foreign Secretary will want to take close note of it. Because of the urgency of the situation, I shall ensure that the Foreign Secretary's office is notified as soon as possible.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab)

May we have a debate on the use of school facilities after school hours? A constituent of mine, Mr. Rahman, wants to teach the Koran to Muslim children within the mainstream setting of a primary school after school hours, but he has not been allowed access to Northfield House primary school. He is asking not for a separate school but to be able to use such facilities to give something to the local community that our mainstream education system does not provide. May we have a debate on this issue, which affects not just the Muslim community but other communities that might want to teach their religion in such settings?

Mr. Hain

I know that it is very, important, both for the Muslim community itself and for the wider community, to ensure that young people have the opportunity to learn about the Koran and the Muslim faith in a proper environment. I know that many imams have also strongly taken that view so it is a matter that I am sure the Secretary of State for Education and Skills and the Home Secretary will want to examine closely, bearing in mind the important point that my hon. Friend has raised.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con)

Will the Leader of the House grant a debate on the way in which the Government are mortgaging the country's future through the abuse of the private finance initiative? Would the Chancellor or the Exchequer wind up such a debate by explaining how in this financial year he is going to sign off 75 PFIs at a cost of £7.7 billion, which did not appear in the Budget statement or the documents attached thereto? Could the Chancellor also explain at the end of such a debate, how the £40 billion worth of PFIs already approved since 1997 will be financed without increases in taxation?

Mr. Hain

The point of the private finance initiative is to ensure that the private sector, including private sector capital and expertise, is brought in to enable us to construct many more new hospitals, schools and other public sector projects than were ever contemplated under the Conservatives or would have been possible had we relied entirely on the public purse to generate that finance. That is the point. We keep the procedures under constant review, but I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome the fact that there are more new hospitals being built, more new schools opened, and more new construction projects going ahead as a result of this extra facility.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab)

May I return to the allegations of cheating and stealing votes? If the Electoral Commission finds that the election has been seriously contaminated, will there be an opportunity for a rethink on the decision already taken to have all-postal voting in the regional referendums to set up assemblies, which are coming up in October'?

Mr. Hain

I make the same point to my hon. Friend as I did to Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members. I am sure that my hon. Friend, as a good democrat, would want more people in his constituency to have the opportunity to vote today and in the forthcoming regional assembly elections. We need as high a turnout as possible in all our elections, particularly in referendums. That is self-evidently desirable.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con)

I assure the Leader of the House that Conservative Members want all their constituents to have the opportunity to vote, but we want each to have the opportunity to cast his or her own vote, not other people's votes en masse on their behalf. Does he accept that, when he accuses us of being insufficiently democratic, the sort of democracy that he may be talking about is the democracy of the former German Democratic Republic, which used to have turnouts of 98 per cent. in elections? Will the Leader of the House deal with the fact that a journalist reported last Sunday that he was able individually to obtain 36 postal votes? Of course the turnout will go up if he chooses to use those 36 votes, and if he had not disclosed them, he could have used them.

Mr. Hain

The hon. Gentleman's comparison with the German situation is, frankly, insulting drivel. On the question of postal votes, he is making a case against such votes under the old system. He is making a case against postal votes of any kind at all, ever. That is what he is saying. We know that there were instances of fraud under the previous system. We know that that is the case. That is why extra procedures were put in place. The concerted attempt by the Conservatives—the hon. Gentleman, I am sorry to say, included—to derail the opportunity for at least 2 million more people than before to vote from the comfort of their own homes means that the Conservatives are scared of democracy. They are scared of a high turnout, and the question is why.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab)

May I add to the calls for a full debate on all-postal ballots after today's elections so that we can have the opportunity to comment on the efficient and effective way in which the ballots have been distributed in places such as Sheffield? In many parts of the country, again including Sheffield, there have not been widespread allegations of fraud or malpractice. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has already pointed out, the one point of confusion causing concern on the doorstep is the requirement for a witness statement. That was brought in at the last minute on the insistence of the Tories and the Lib Dems and against the advice of the Electoral Commission, which said that it would add nothing to ballot security. It could lead to thousands of ballot papers being disqualified, which shows that Government Members should be congratulated on enhancing democracy and that Opposition Members should accept the responsibility for the adverse consequences for democracy of their actions.

Mr. Hain

I fully agree with my hon. Friend. Arguably, if there were any opportunities for malpractice, they would be increased by the need to have the witness statement. That is precisely what we argued, supported by the Electoral Commission, against the wrecking tactics of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition on this matter.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con)

As late as yesterday, the borough of Trafford reissued 483 ballot papers. For most of the people concerned, postal voting is simply out of the question. Will the Government assess how many tens of thousands of people in the northern regions and the east midlands will be deprived of the right to vote by the Government's postal vote shambles? I also ask the Government to reflect on the real evidence about turnout in postal voting. My borough has had previous pilots for postal voting. A couple of years ago, the turnout in the borough of Trafford went up from 35 per cent. to 52 per cent. The indications are that, this year, it has come down again to closer to 40 per cent. Could it be that people vote when the system is new, but when it settles down, the turnout decreases, or is it that combining the ballot with the European elections has depressed interest in the local elections?

Mr. Hain

There is a whole series of questions there. It is possible that after the novelty of postal voting has worn off, the turnout may decline. Who knows? That is exactly why we want to assess how the scheme has gone and what lessons can be learned. It is also why the legislation was time limited to a series of pilots. I am advised that in Trafford, the hon. Gentleman's area, where a pilot was conducted a year or so ago, the Conservatives actually benefited from it. That shows just how broad-minded the Labour Government are in favouring democracy over party interest and in wanting a high turnout rather than a low turnout, disengagement, apathy and alienation, from which the right wing has always benefited in politics across the world. Fundamentally, Labour is on the side of democracy and the Conservatives have always, historically, been opposed to the extension of democracy.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab)

And now for something completely different. Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 1259 on the treatment of victims of crime?

[That this House recognises that the Police and the Crown Prosecution Service are expected to act under the provisions of the Victims Charter in providing explanations to those claiming to be victims of crimes whenever it is decided that these bodies will not instigate criminal charges or will drop or reduce such charges; is deeply concerned that Government departments and agencies invariably avoid giving such explanations by claiming legal professional privilege under the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information in similar cases where they are legislatively responsible for exercising the prosecuting role; believes that such blanket exemptions from acting on the provisions of the Victims Charter should be ended forthwith and that all of those who have been denied explanations for non-prosecutions by Government departments and agencies since the update of the Victims Charter in 1996 should retrospectively be supplied with these; and further believes that relevant Government amendments to the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Freedom of Information Act 2000 should urgently be placed before this House to ensure that this matter can be rectified in law.] If the police or the Crown Prosecution Service do not follow up a prosecution on behalf of the victim, they are obliged by the victim's charter, as amended in 1996, to provide an explanation as to why not. If a Government Department with the responsibility for prosecution refuses to do so, it uses legal and professional privilege in order to escape that responsibility. If the code of practice on access to Government information was adjusted, it would end that anomaly. It would also save the House's time if that were done quickly; otherwise, my alternative avenue is to table an amendment to the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill on Monday.

Mr. Hain

I am not sure about that being something completely different. If someone's ballot paper has been stolen by a Liberal Democrat, he is a victim of crime. The issue that my hon. Friend has raised is a complicated one. We do not believe that there is a need to amend the legislation. Balancing public rights of access to information with the need to preserve confidentiality in certain circumstances requires careful judgment, and we are confident that the public interest in those areas is protected under existing law. My hon. Friend will have the opportunity to make his case when the moment comes.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con)

I think that I ought to be asking for a debate on the Leader of the House's grasp of history and logic. In respect of his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), he first ignored the fact that it was Benjamin Disraeli who piloted through one of the biggest expansions of the franchise in this country. Secondly, he said at one stage that postal voting had benefited the Conservatives and then that it always benefited the left. He simply could not make up his mind. Never mind, that is not what I want to ask for. What I want to ask for is an urgent debate on postal voting, which we need to inform the consideration of the pilot schemes by the Government and the Electoral Commission. The debate should come before the Government produce a report, not after. We are all in favour of increasing election turnouts. Declining turnouts are a terrifying wake-up call to politicians that we are failing to engage the people. Raising turnouts does not depend on gimmicks such as all-postal voting, text voting or e-voting. The secret is to re-engage with the public.

Mr. Hain

I can applaud the hon. Gentleman's sentiment. At least, a Conservative Member is saying for the first time that a higher turnout is desirable. That is a good thing, but in the modern age, people's lifestyles, aspirations and behaviour are very different from what they were the past. There has been a long decline in election turnouts, under Governments of all parties. It is right to look at all sorts of different ways to encourage turnout. In the future, that may involve the use of information technology or greater postal voting. All such possibilities should be considered, but the hon. Gentleman should know that the legislation specifically provides for an assessment of the pilots, so that the lessons can be learned for the future. That assessment will be carried out.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con)

My question is more of the same, I am afraid, Mr. Speaker. The Leader of the House has powerfully advocated the case for postal voting. We all want higher turnouts, so will he say when he intends to schedule a debate on the subject? We want the postal voting system to work properly, and with integrity. We also want it to be evaluated properly. My information is that in this election, for the first time ever, spoiled ballots will be counted as part of the turnout. There may be a case for that but, if we are to evaluate properly increased turnouts as a result of postal voting, we need to be fully informed of the facts. I should be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman will say when a proper debate on this matter is likely to be forthcoming.

Mr. Hain

I am intrigued by the way in which Conservative Members are seeking to rubbish the results of these elections in advance, as though they have something to fear. That is very interesting indeed. As I have made clear all along, all the aspects of the new procedure, including the one mentioned by the hon. Gentleman, will be evaluated properly, by the Electoral Commission and other bodies. There is no intention to string that evaluation out, as we want to draw lessons for the future.

However, I want to return to the historical point made earlier. It was the labour movement that joined the Chartists in pressing for universal suffrage, and it was the labour and trade union movement that pressed for women's right to vote—against the consistent opposition of the Conservatives and right-wing forces. That is our history: the Opposition's history is very different.

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD)

Will the Leader of the House clarify his earlier comments about the reintroduction of the Hunting Bill? The Government have made various apparent commitments in that regard, but they chose their words very carefully—as the right hon. Gentleman did—by talking about "resolving" the issue. The House has repeatedly voted, by large majorities, to ban that cruel sport, and all legitimate opinion polls show that about 70 per cent. of the public agree that the sport is cruel and should be abolished. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the Hunting Bill will be reintroduced in the six weeks left before the summer recess? Will he confirm that the rules and procedures of the House, and the Parliament Act 1911, mean that the Bill could pass through the House in one day, if it is reintroduced before the summer recess? If the other place rejected it, could not the Bill still be law by the autumn of this year? Alternatively, when the Government talk about resolving the issue, does that mean letting it drift into the long grass until after the next general election?

Mr. Hain

The House of Lords sought to long-grass the matter, as the hon. Gentleman knows, by using the Tory-dominated hereditary vote. We are determined to resolve the matter, and we intend to do so.

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