HC Deb 08 March 2004 vol 418 cc1237-9
21. Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge) (Con)

To ask the hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, what assessment the Electoral Commission has made of the potential risks of holding all-postal pilots in four regions in the June 2004 European and local government elections. [158937]

Mr. Viggers

The Government directed the commission to make recommendations as to which regions were most suitable to undertake all-postal voting in the June 2004 European and local government elections. The commission's report published in December therefore examined a range of issues, including the potential risks in each potential pilot region. The commission concluded that two regions best met the criteria and were suitable for piloting all-postal voting. Its opinion on the Government's proposal for four regional pilots, as opposed to two, is set out in the letter of 4 March from its chairman to the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie), the text of which is available on the commission's website and a copy of which has been placed in the Library.

Mr. Hammond

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his reply. I have now seen the letter to which he referred, but it had not been published when I tabled my question. It is clear from the letter that the Government have attempted to lean on the Electoral Commission ahead of today's consideration of Lords amendments to the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill, which would have the effect of reverting to two pilots, as the Electoral Commission recommended. It is much to the commission's credit that it is unbowed in its objection to conducting more extensive all-postal voting before necessary legislative changes are made. The letter makes it clear that its expert opinion is being overridden by the Government.

It is only by chance that that important letter came to my attention today, and I suspect that many other hon. Members will not be aware of its presence. Will my hon. Friend explore with the Electoral Commission whether it could routinely make available in the form of briefings to Members of Parliament matters of such importance, where issues touching on its work are to be debated in the House?

Mr. Viggers

I think that the Electoral Commission has been assiduous in keeping hon. Members informed of developments in the field of electoral reform. The issue in question arose at very short notice, and the letter was placed on the commission's website and in the Library, so it was available to colleagues. The commission was concerned about the number of pilot regions. The letter states: As I have mentioned, we expected the Government to nominate three regions and were surprised to learn that the Bill was to be amended to name four regions. It went on to say: You are aware of our if view that the rollout of all postal elections needs to be underpinned by a more robust statutory framework. There will be an opportunity for the matter to be discussed in the House later today.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Electoral Commission, which does a good job in protecting the interests of the electorate, is right to be concerned about the lack of proper supervision? If the Bill gets on to the statute book, will his do everything that he can to encourage it rapidly to put in place monitoring machinery that will ensure that there is no fraud or forgery, as that would be very damaging to the electoral process?

Mr. Viggers

Indeed. The hon. Lady referred to her concerns, which are reflected in the chairman's letter, which states that all-postal elections need to be underpinned by a more robust statutory framework. That is one of the risks that was identified in the Electoral Commission's report of December 2003, and one of the matters that has not perhaps been given the weight that the commission might have wanted it to be given in the Government's response.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD)

Is the hon. Gentleman concerned that the views of the Electoral Commission are being systematically misrepresented by Ministers in this House? For example, on Thursday 4 March the Leader of the House said of the Electoral Commission: it has said that we should go ahead with two schemes and, if we judge that there are sufficient resources and so on to enable four pilots to be held, that we should go ahead and hold those as well. That is exactly what it said."—[Official Report, 4 March 2004; Vol. 418, c. 1066.] My understanding is that that is exactly what it did not say. I wonder what the hon. Gentleman would say about that observation.

Mr. Viggers

I have seen a copy of the parliamentary report and it would not be appropriate for me to comment on it. What is more appropriate is for me to read out a section of the letter from the chairman of the Electoral Commission, dated 4 December: There is also in our view increased risk, with combined elections and in some cases new boundaries, in running on such a large scale and we are not persuaded that the risk is outweighed by what we might learn from four regional pilots as opposed to two.