HC Deb 27 May 2004 vol 421 cc1735-46


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to update the House on progress in the administration of the European parliamentary and local elections. A number of Members made points of order yesterday in response to media reports, so I thought that it would assist the House if I gave a short report on the picture so far.

No unexpected issues have been reported to my Department in those parts of the country where voting will occur through conventional means. In respect of the all-postal voting pilots in the north-east, the north-west, the east midlands and Yorkshire and Humber, at this early stage regional returning officers are reporting good progress in general. They all remain on track for issuing ballot packs by next Tuesday, 1 June, in accordance with the regulations.

Twelve printing contractors are involved in the all-postal pilot trials. Because of technical issues associated with the data processing and printing machines operated by associates of one contractor—Opt2Vote—some local returning officers did not receive their printed ballot packs to the schedule originally anticipated. No doubt this delay has caused some of the concerns that have already been voiced, particularly in the east midlands, where Opt2Vote has the largest contract. Contingency arrangements appear to be working well. I am assured that spare printing capacity is being employed across the country and that the printing issue is now in hand. Revised printing schedules from Opt2Vote indicate that it will be able to meet the 1 June issuing deadline for all local authorities.

Separately, the managing director of one other contractor was taken ill, which caused a printing delay for two local authorities. I am pleased to report that the returning officers in question have been able to reallocate ballot pack printing, and I should like to thank the other contractors and the local authority in-house printing teams for employing their spare capacity.

Overall, 127 local authorities are taking part in the all-postal pilots, and 49 local authorities are still in the process of printing. This is within the margins of the targets set, and I am confident that the deadlines to hand over packs to the Royal Mail will be met. Thirteen of the 40 authorities in the east midlands have already had their ballot packs delivered to the Royal Mail, and in the north-west 28 of the 43 authorities' packs have been delivered. In the north-east, 19 out of 23 packs have been passed to the Royal Mail and other deliverers, and in Yorkshire and Humber 18 out of 21 have gone to the Royal Mail.

I am pleased to report to the House that the Royal Mail is responding efficiently and effectively to the challenge of all-postal voting. We have established excellent relations with the management teams in each region and at a national level. Yesterday, I met Adam Crozier, chief executive of the Royal Mail, and plans to ensure delivery as quickly as possible were confirmed. Many electors have already received their voting papers, and some papers have even been returned to returning officers. I encourage electors with postal votes to make their choice, complete their ballot papers and post them by 8 June, to ensure they are safely delivered to returning officers in plenty of time for the close of poll on 10 June.

All-postal voting has been piloted for several years, gradually scaling up from local pilots to this year's four regional pilots. The initiative is being tested to discover the impact on turnout, and the signs are that millions more electors will participate as a result of receiving their ballot papers at home. This is surely to be welcomed, as our democracy rests on achieving the most widespread involvement of as many people as possible.

I hope that the House finds this short update useful, and that it will pay tribute to the sterling efforts of professional and dedicated returning officers throughout the country. They are rising to the challenge of making voting easier and more convenient for the public at large, and I am confident that the elections will run smoothly.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con)

Nobody is fooled by the Minister's phoney confidence. I invite the House to picture the scene in the private office as the messages come flooding in and bits of paper are flying around, with the Minister's mentors saying, "Play this very low key and keep it as quiet as possible, so as not to cause alarm." The fact is that the Government have created a potentially extremely serious situation. The Minister did not tell the House just now that the plan was for ballot papers to be distributed this week—such are the contracts that he negotiated—and for the first of the returns to be opened this weekend in every single authority. However, many local authorities in the four northern regions have yet to have their ballot papers printed.

Should ballot papers for 125,000 electors in Bradford, for example, fail to be delivered to the Post Office by the close of play next Tuesday, what will happen? Paragraph 14 of schedule 2 to the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (All Postal) Pilot Order 2004 states the situation clearly: The ballot pack shall be issued by the returning officer as soon as practicable after 5pm on the 17th May 2004"— and that was a long time ago— and not later than the 1st June 2004". The initial legal advice that we have received is categorical. In Bradford, Newcastle or Preston, any substantial failure to deliver ballot packs to the Post Office by close of play next Tuesday would mean cancelling and re-running not just the local elections in those places, but the European elections for the whole of those regions.

The only alternative would be a recall of Parliament next week for emergency legislation. Of course, the returning officers and their staff will do everything possible to achieve the deadline, despite the Government's arrogance and stupidity, but let the House not take their dedication and professionalism for granted. I join the Minister in thanking the thousands of public servants involved. Let us lament their wrecked bank holiday weekend, which results from the Government's incompetence.

Even if all the deadlines are met, some electors will inevitably be disfranchised by the delays. Anyone going abroad this weekend for a fortnight will not be able to vote. The House recognises that this hapless Minister is only obeying orders by appearing here today. Is not the Deputy Prime Minister the man responsible for making this great democracy begin to seem more like a banana republic? Is the Minister going to try to deny that if the Government had accepted the advice of the Electoral Commission for a much smaller pilot he would not be making this humiliating statement today?

I listened to the words of the Minister when he said that the Government were "gradually scaling up" the pilot. The Government have rammed through at short notice legislation that they never originally intended to introduce to put a third of the English electorate under a so-called pilot. That is now proving to have been a rash act. Was not the Deputy Prime Minister warned about this time and time again? The chairman of the Electoral Commission, Sam Younger, personally wrote to him on 4 March saying: Preparation time is already limited and further delays will add uncertainties and risks. He wrote again on 23 March. He said: May I emphasise again how important it is to resolve this issue. Surely the fact that the Minister mentioned one illness in his statement shows what risks the Government were taking. Will he admit that the real reason for defying the Electoral Commission's advice was the Deputy Prime Minister's determination to pilot all-postal voting in all the three regions due to hold referendums on elected regional assemblies in the autumn? The ultimate question that the Government must answer is why the Government are always so ready to abandon principle and consensus in order to pursue their own cheap, narrow sectarian advantage?

Mr. Leslie

I presume that the tone of the hon. Gentleman's response was intended to gain some sectarian advantage for the Conservative party: what it will probably do is quite the opposite. Those with responsibility in this House—I include in my comments Members from all parties—will recognise that it is important that we maintain public confidence in the manner in which our elections are administered. It is the responsibility of returning officers at regional and local level. I have confidence in their abilities to cope. They all say that they are happy to be coping with the all-postal arrangements. They report that, while there have been some delays, as I mentioned in my statement, the printing schedules are on track to meet the 1 June deadline.

The hon. Gentleman speculated what might happen in certain circumstances. He mentioned legal advice that he had received. I do not expect that we will go past the 1 June deadline. As that situation is not likely to arise, I do not believe that it is necessary to go into that level of speculation.

The hon. Gentleman made a point about Bradford. I have looked into that area. I understand that the ballot packs are due to be with Royal Mail today and tomorrow, which is clearly ahead of the 1 June deadline.

There were problems with a number of contractors—especially Opt2Vote in the east midlands—but I believe that contingency plans are working well and that we are on track to use some of the spare printing capacity that is around. These issues arise all the time in elections, but because the all-postal elections are subject to obvious scrutiny it is natural that hon. Members are paying particular attention. I believe that the elections will run smoothly, but I caution all hon. Members. We need to be responsible about the tone and language that we use when we speak about the administration of elections. It is important that people realise that the returning officers can cope. They will run the elections well. The arrangements are on target; we are on track. The hysteria from the hon. Gentleman is unwarranted.

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

This pilot would now seem to be sunk. Who will be the last returning officer to receive the packs? By what dates should the packs initially have been received, according to the schedule? What extra help will be provided to returning officers to see that they are able to meet the deadline for the distribution of ballot papers?

Mr. Leslie

As I explained some moments ago, 1 June is the deadline in the regulations for the issuing of ballot packs—that means that they go from the printers to Royal Mail. We are on track to do that. The media reports of how printers factor in the scheduling of their different printing arrangements have led to some of the stories. I assure my hon. Friend that the regulations will be adhered to, that electors will get their ballot packs in time and that they will have ample opportunity to complete and return them. We are in constant dialogue with the returning officers for all the regions, especially the east midlands, given the size of the Opt2Vote contract. We will continue to give assistance to them as appropriate. They are the clients of the contractors, yet we are helping in looking for spare printing capacity as and when that is necessary. I do not believe that there is any need at this stage to have a lack of confidence in the returning officers.

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

I am grateful for the statement, but any lack of confidence is not in the returning officers but in the Government who got them into this mess.

Was not the Minister's statement astonishingly complacent given the scale of the problems? In the east midlands, with the single exception of Chesterfield borough council, which was allowed to do its own thing in terms of printing because it had conducted a previous pilot successfully. all the local authorities were forced into the hands of a contractor who clearly could not cope. Many returning officers will not have the packs until 1 June, which is the date by which they should have been sent to voters.

The Minister blandly says that in the north-east 19 out of 23 local authorities will be on time, without mentioning that the four that will not be on time happen to be Newcastle, Gateshead and north and south Tyneside, which represent almost a third of the electorate in the north-east. Will the Minister explain who are the "other deliverers" apart from Royal Mail that he mentioned in his statement? He made no reference to the returning officers who are having to cope with printers who have made mistakes in the composition of the packs and papers that have been sent to the wrong electors. My hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) has mentioned two pairs of wards in his area that were affected last night. We now know that in at least two further wards—Stepping Hill in the Stockport constituency and Heald Green in the Cheadle constituency—electors simply have received the wrong ballot papers in the post. It is difficult to see how that will be corrected.

There was an arrangement agreed by all parties, the Electoral Commission and Royal Mail for a moratorium that prevented any ballot packs from being delivered with the election material from a single political party, because that clearly would give a bias. That moratorium is not being adhered to. Has the Minister anything to say about the integrity of an election that is in that position?

If the ballot papers are not in the hands of the electors on 1 June, which is what the regulation requires, will regional and local returning officers or the Minister's office have any power to suspend, extend or cancel the elections?

This disaster could have been avoided had the Minister listened more to the expert advice of the Electoral Commission and of this House and had he not acceded to the bullying of the Deputy Prime Minister.

Mr. Leslie

It is exceptionally disappointing that Opposition spokespeople have tried to capitalise on what are normal printing arrangements and difficulties, which are encountered in any election arrangement. They will all know that, from time to time, the printing schedules have to change because of technological issues and, in this case, the printing machines and the process by which ballot packs can be produced. However, so long as those ballot packs are produced within the target margins—before the deadline of 1 June—I am confident that we can run these elections smoothly.

It is incumbent on all hon. Members, particularly those who are party spokespeople, to think very carefully about such an opportunistic attempt to jump in on any story that may come along, to claim that all the elections are somehow in jeopardy. That is not the case. The elections will run smoothly. I am confident from the assurances that I have had from the regional returning officers, who are the professionals involved, that they have ample capability to cope with any necessary arrangement, and Royal Mail will also be able to cope with the delivery arrangements. Hon. Members must bear in mind the fact that others are watching and need to see this.

In respect of the hon. Gentleman's point about the east midlands, I do not believe that all those returning officers were forced to use Opt2Vote contractors. They had an opt-out arrangement with the regional returning officer, and all but one chose to use Opt2Vote. Most of the difficulty in the north-east was due to the illness of one managing director at Document Technologies, but we have now found arrangements whereby the in-house printers in the Sunderland local authority have helped out in catching up with the printing there, so I believe that the problems are solved in that area.

I will look further into the points that the hon. Gentleman raises about Stockport, but I believe that, when we consider the scale of these all-postal elections— 14.2 million people are involved—the elections will be successful. As I say, the general picture is one of, good progress so far.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab)

I welcome my hon. Friend's update. As he knows, Leicester is one of the pilot areas. We expected to receive our ballot papers this weekend, although the electoral registration officer assures me that they will go out next week. My hon. Friend knows that the papers can be either sent by post or delivered to a venue. In Leicester, the electoral registration officer has decided that there should be one venue—the town hall. In view of the delay in issuing those ballot papers, would it not be acceptable to have a venue in each parliamentary constituency in Leicester, thus making it easier for people to deliver their ballot papers if they receive them late, after they return from holiday? Will my hon. Friend issue guidance to that effect and provide help to local authorities if they wish to take up that suggestion?

Mr. Leslie

All the necessary guidance for local authorities is in place—I am confident about that—and the minimum number of assisted delivery points is one for each local authority, although it is a matter of discretion for local returning officers to choose whether to supply further assisted delivery points. I am not sure about the precise arrangements in Leicester, but that area was contracted to Opt2Vote, as part of the ballot delivery. I have seen the schedule, and we anticipate that its ballot packs for Leicester will be delivered in time. The regional returning officer for the east midlands, Roger Morris, is confident about that, but I will continue to monitor the situation.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con)

The Minister said that no unexpected issue has been reported to his Department. Does he understand that many hon. Members find that rather surprising? In my constituency, it was anticipated that the returning officer for North Kesteven district council would receive the ballots packs about a week ago. None will be received until Sunday, at the earliest, and many—probably most—will not be received, if all goes well, until Monday, which is the day before the things must be issued. That is a scandalous state of affairs, when the returning officer had desired at least a week's leave.

Mr. Leslie

The right hon. and learned Gentleman's question had the answer within it: the target deadline is 1 June. I am confident that we will have those ballot packs by then. Certainly, some local returning officers had anticipated that they could process ballot packs slightly earlier. There have been some delays because of data processing issues and the printing machine technology, but those issues are being rectified. The issuing of ballot packs is on schedule, and I believe that the elections will go successfully.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab)

May I tell the Minister about my concern? Three of the candidates in the local elections in Bury have recently been subject to damning reports by the Standards Board for England. All three of them have been involved in postal vote irregularities. A few weeks ago, one of them turned up at the town hall, demanding 200 postal vote application forms. The Crown Prosecution Service investigated the other two for irregularities in residential care homes. The fact that they are all Tory candidates is, I am sure, an absolute coincidence. Will my hon. Friend assure the House that the guidance given to election candidates in respect of the handling of postal ballot forms is absolutely accurate and thorough? Is he confident that the integrity of the process is secure, particularly where candidates have financial interests in residential care homes?

Mr. Leslie

I understand that the Electoral Commission has been closely involved in drawing up suggestive guidance about the handling of ballot papers for all parties. That is available, and I am sure that all parties will have seen it. I am not aware of the issues that relate to the Standards Board for England. Those matters would be more appropriate for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, but I will pass on my hon. Friend's comments to my hon. Friends.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con)

Has the Minister received any legal advice covering the events that he does not anticipate happening—if things are not done within the statutory deadlines? In his discussions with regional and local returning officers, has he asked them to monitor the ballot papers that are received too late to be counted and to make notes of the postmarks, showing when they were posted?

Mr. Leslie

The latter point was made during debates on the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill, and we said then that the Electoral Commission would consider monitoring such issues in the report that it will produce by the middle of September. That will be a good way to investigate what happens during the pilot schemes and trials that we undertake.

On the first point, of course, I receive legal advice all the time on the various contingencies and options. That is the case in this situation as well. It would be wrong if I did not constantly stay in touch with the legal position; but, as I say, I have full confidence that we will not need to be in a position where regulations are not adhered to.

Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab)

May I reassure my hon. Friend that the ballot papers in my constituency appear to be popping through people's doors this morning, exactly on time? That is a clear example of the system working. Will he comment in a bit more detail on the data processing problems? Do some of the problems stem from the fact that electoral registers in the UK are held in all sorts of different ways and that local authorities organise them in ways that do not line up with one another? Could we learn some lessons about modernising the way in which we keep our electoral registers if we are to proceed with such experiments in the future and make voting easier?

Mr. Leslie

I am glad that my hon. Friend's constituents are receiving their ballot packs. That is the case for most electors in the pilot regions. Listening to one or two examples of printing queries, people would think that the problems are widespread. That is not the case. I have confidence in the returning officers, and these elections will run smoothly. She also raises a fair point about the form in which electoral registers are held. That is something on which the Electoral Commission has made recommendations in the past. We are considering standardising electoral registration data nationwide, but that is perhaps something for future legislation.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con)

I do not know where the Minister has been hiding, but had he looked at the regional press in the north-east this morning, he would have seen the front-page headline of Newcastle'sThe Journal, which says "The big postal voting farce". More than 600,000 ballot papers have yet to be issued in the north-east. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jerkin) said, those had to be issued, as soon as practicable, after 5 pm on 17 May, which was 10 days ago. Will the Minister answer the question that we have been trying to get him to answer: what happens if the postal ballots do not reach the returning officers by 1 June? Is the election valid or invalid?

Mr. Leslie

The validity of any election is a matter for the law, not for Ministers. That would be taken up should a returning officer be in breach of his legal obligations. We do not anticipate that returning officers will be in breach of their legal obligations. They report good progress in ensuring that they stay on target and on track with the 1 June deadline. That is the situation.

I understand that this will be a newsworthy event. No doubt newspapers will have lurid headlines. I repeat, however, that it is important that we do not have hysterical comments, such as those that we heard from the Opposition Front Benches. It is important to take a moment to think about the need for public confidence in the way in which our returning officers act in the administration of elections. They do a good job, and they are doing a good job this time, too.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab)

It would be wrong to describe the problem as something that relates to the competence of the returning officers; it is about whether they will have the ballot papers for distribution by 1 June. The problems in the east midlands are summed up by what seems to be the rebranding of the company responsible for the print contract. It is now more popularly referred to not as Opt2Vote, but as "Out to Lunch". Will the Minister give the commitment to Members who represent constituencies in the east midlands that we will be given a detailed description of the safety net provisions that will be put in place so that we can discharge our duties to the electorate should Opt2Vote still find itself dining out on its own incompetence?

Mr. Leslie

I am sorry that my hon. Friend characterises the work of one contractor in that way. It has encountered difficulties, but that does not mean that disaster has struck. It is on target to deliver ballot packs on schedule on 1 June. That is the situation, and my hon. Friend would not expect me to report anything but the facts. I believe that the information that I am receiving from the regional returning officer for the east midlands is accurate. He has good contingency plans in place. I will, of course, endeavour to keep all hon. Members informed of developments. I thought that it would be useful to update the House on progress so far, which, by and large, is good.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con)

I can imagine why the Government do not want local or European elections, but to make a shambles of the election process is beyond the pale. If there were no problem, the Minister would not have made a statement—so he obviously accepts that there is one.

I spoke to the returning officer in Preston today. Ballot papers should be dropping through people's letterboxes, but the proper checks need to be carried out and the returning officer is doing the proofing now. Does the Minister accept that had those papers dropped through letterboxes on time, some people who are going on holiday would have been able to vote, but now they cannot? Had they known that the election process would be a shambles, they could have arranged a proxy vote. We warned him that he should not persist with postal ballots in the north-west. The Government forced that through, against all the advice. It is his responsibility. He must take the blame.

Mr. Leslie

Intemperate language does not get the hon. Gentleman any further forward. I thought that it was important to give the House an update, not least because of media reports and yesterday's points of order. Had I not done that, no doubt more points of order would have been raised, asking where Ministers are and so on. I am doing my best to describe the picture of what is happening according to regional returning officers. They have reported good progress so far. We are at an early stage, not forgetting that close of poll is 10 June. We still have a long time to go, and no doubt anecdotes will be heard from time, to time. We try as hard as we can, as do the returning officers, to ensure that the elections are infallible, although issues will arise from time to time. I repeat: we are on schedule to deliver successful elections. I have no reason to doubt that at this stage.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab)

My hon. Friend mentioned his meeting with Adam Crozier yesterday. Did Mr. Crozier give a 100 per cent. guarantee that ballot papers posted on 8 June would arrive with returning officers on polling day on 10 June? Can the Minister remind me whether anything is on the ballot paper to indicate that it must be returned by 8 June to be counted?

Mr. Leslie

I discussed the return of ballot papers with the chief executive of Royal Mail. Although there will be a sweep of post boxes right up until, the close of the poll, we are advising electors to ensure that they post their ballot papers by 8 June to be certain that the returning officers receive them in plenty of time. We want to ensure that as many electors as possible know that. It is in the advice that they receive in their ballot packs. I hope that my hon. Friend will help in promulgating that message.

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

The Minister is a decent chap and I am anxious to help him. He must realise that he has not convinced the House, and hon. Members on both sides remain concerned.

May I draw his attention to a couple of facts? The hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) said yesterday that the elections are worse than those in a third-world democracy, or words to that effect. We recently had highly successful and efficient elections in the world's largest democracy—India—which compare favourably with the mess that we are in. Even at this late stage, why does not the Minister think of inviting Commonwealth parliamentary election observers to ensure the integrity of the elections?

Mr. Leslie

I look forward to when the hon. Gentleman next meets his returning officers. I think that I will post them copies of his comments. I am sure that they will be astonished at the intemperate language that he uses to describe their dedication to their task. They are perfectly capable of dealing with the arrangements and have them in hand. We have seen the ballot packs going out, and the vast majority are already with Royal Mail. We are on schedule to meet the 1 June target.

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

On 16 March, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning and Local Government Committee took evidence from secure printers, in particular De La Rue Security Products and Document Technology Ltd. They expressed grave doubts about the viability of the process. De La Rue, probably the biggest and most highly thought of secure printer, had already decided at the beginning of March not to tender for the ballot paper printing because, in the words of Mr. Keith Brown: We took the view subsequent to that, in early March, that we have withdrawn from this year's pilots on the basis both of potential lack of print capacity, but also in terms of procurement lead times for key pieces of equipment.

This shambles was not only predictable but foreseen by those who knew what they were doing. It is patently obvious from what has happened in the past few days that Ministers do not have a clue what they are doing. Given the fiasco over which the Minister presides, will he take the responsibility, of which he spoke, and apologise to the House, returning officers and the electorate for the mess? Will he also give an undertaking that anyone who does not receive their ballot paper in time will be able to cast a vote in the traditional way, at a polling station, on 10 June?

Mr. Leslie

Again, I regret the hon. Gentleman's approach. I do not know whether it was clear to the House where his quote ended, but his talk about shambles and so on was not part of De La Rue's comments. Different contractors and printers have taken a different view of whether they want to participate. We have 12 main contractors involved in the scheme and have experienced delays with, I think, two of them. We are in touch with them and the returning officers are working closely with them, bringing them back on track. We do not have a problem that is as widespread as the hon. Gentleman suggests. It is important for him to take a step back, take a breath and realise that the elections are running smoothly.

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

Judging by his statement the Minister will be assessing the success or otherwise of this experiment according to whether turnout goes up. As someone who, 20 years ago, worked with other Conservatives, Liberals and the then Social Democrats to try to restore integrity to trade union ballot practices, may I assure the hon. Gentleman that the measure of whether an election has integrity is not the level of the turnout? If turnout goes up it is often a sign that there has been multiple voting, cheating, ballot stuffing and abuse in general. How confident is the Minister that when these elections are over there will not be a great many reports about abuses?

Mr. Leslie

I am really disappointed with the hon. Gentleman. Saying that a higher turnout is a sign of malpractice is beyond reality. He needs to appreciate the track record of previous postal pilots; they all proved successful in raising the electorate's participation, and that will happen again in these elections. The Electoral Commission will be undertaking an investigation and review of how the pilots work and, as I said, it will report in September.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton) (Con)

I am glad that the Minister responded to my point of order yesterday and came to the House to make a statement today. He may be aware that the regional returning officer in the north-west, the chief executive of Manchester city council, had an emergency meeting with returning officers in Cheshire and West Lancashire last night, and they are moving heaven and earth to get the ballot papers out as soon as they receive them from the printers. Does the Minister, on behalf of the Government, accept any responsibility at all for this mess?

Mr. Leslie

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman made his point of order yesterday; I saw it inHansard and wanted to come to the House to respond to it. It is important that hon. Members have that opportunity to raise issues from time to time, even though those issues may not necessarily be points of order.

I am aware that Howard Bernstein, the regional returning officer in the north-west, is meeting colleagues in different areas to discuss issues, and quite right too. That is exactly the job that regional returning officers should be doing. I think that they are doing a good job, and I believe that the elections will be successful.