HC Deb 13 September 2004 vol 424 cc987-98 3.41 pm
The Minister for Local and Regional Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement to the House on regional and local referendums in the north-east, north-west, and Yorkshire and the Humber. Before doing so, I offer the House apologies on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister for his absence today, as he has to attend a funeral.

Today's statement follows one I made in July in which I referred to the differences of view in the House about whether we should go ahead with referendums in the north-west, and in Yorkshire and the Humber. I explained the Government's decision to reschedule the referendums in those areas and confirmed, against a strong confidence in postal voting in the north-east, our decision to proceed with the referendum in that region. Hon. Members will recall that Parliament approved the orders enabling that referendum to take place.

In July, I also gave the House two assurances. First, I said that the Government would not proceed with the referendum in the north-east on the basis proposed if the Electoral Commission produced convincing evidence that it would be unsafe to do so. Secondly, I said that, with your permission, Mr. Speaker, I would make a further statement in September on how we intended to proceed with the referendums in the north-west and in Yorkshire and the Humber, having had the opportunity to consider the Electoral Commission's evaluation report of the June electoral pilots. Today's statement follows on from those two assurances.

The Electoral Commission published its report on 27 August. In parallel, it published a statement setting out its view of the implications of its report for the regional and local referendums in the north-east. That report concludes that successful elections were delivered in the four pilot regions. The commission states that, to date, it is not aware of any evidence to suggest any widespread abuse of postal voting either within or beyond the pilot regions. Moreover, from an extensive public opinion survey, the commission found that people in the pilot regions were satisfied with all-postal voting by a margin of two to one—59 per cent. against 29 per cent.

Nevertheless, the commission concludes that the all-postal pilots raise a number of important issues that need to be addressed in relation to the future development of voting methods in Britain. It makes a range of recommendations designed to make voting more convenient, to increase the administrative capacity to run elections, and to build greater public confidence in voting arrangements. Above all, the commission identifies in its report the strong public support for electors to have choice in how to vote—a demand for choice that the commission is clear that all-postal voting does not meet. Accordingly, it has withdrawn its previous recommendation that all-postal voting should become the norm in local government elections.

In its place, the commission proposes to develop a new foundation model of voting as a basis for future multi-channel elections. The commission undertakes to work with Government, electoral administrators, political parties, and experts in access and security to design that new approach to voting, which must be capable of offering electors both choice and security. It is against that background of findings and recommendations that the commission has drawn up its statement about the conduct of regional and local referendums.

The commission has unambiguously concluded that the north-east referendum, which the House has approved for 4 November, should proceed as an all-postal ballot without changes to the process. Central to the commission reaching that conclusion is its recognition that the referendum process is already under way, and its judgment that there would be far greater risk to the process if significant changes were made now than if the referendum continued as planned.

The commission recognises that the system for the north-east referendum is an improvement over that piloted in June, particularly as there is no requirement for a witness to sign a security statement and because we have required considerably more assistance and delivery points at which voters can receive help and vote in privacy. The commission also recognises that there have been no allegations of fraud in the north-east, that there is extensive experience of all-postal voting in that region, and that there is greater public support for all-postal voting there than in any other region.

Accordingly, the commission explicitly states that it is not making any recommendations for change to the orders already made in relation to the conduct of the north-east referendums. The commission undertakes to work with the chief counting officer and the Government to encourage and promote good practice within the framework of the existing order.

There are therefore no grounds for not proceeding with the north-east referendums. They will go ahead as planned on 4 November. The Government welcome the commission's undertaking to work with others to encourage and promote good practice, and we stand ready to play our part.

As for the referendums in the north-west and in Yorkshire and the Humber, in its statement, the commission states that given the recommendations in its evaluation report, it could not support any future referendums on the all-postal basis now being used for the north-east. We welcome the commission's commitment to multi-channel elections—the form of elections that has consistently been the long-term aim of the Government's electoral modernisation strategy. We are ready to work with the commission on developing its proposed new foundation model of voting and we will discuss with the commission how that will be taken forward. We hope that all key stakeholders will join us. We share the commission's belief about the importance of securing a degree of public and political consensus in favour of significant changes to the electoral process before moving forward. We note that the commission aims to report on the new model in March 2005.

Against that background, it would be wrong now to reach final conclusions on the precise timing and form of the referendums in the north-west and in Yorkshire and the Humber. Over the coming months we, and others, will want to see how work progresses on the new foundation model, and to consider and analyse more deeply the full range of the commission's recommendations. We will then be better placed to take final decisions about the form and timing of those referendums. I would, however, reiterate what I said in July: the Government are absolutely committed to the referendums going ahead.

It is important that the people of the north-west and Yorkshire and the Humber should have their opportunity to express their view for or against an elected regional assembly and the associated local government reorganisation. I understand the concerns that have been voiced about delay leading to uncertainty about the future structure of local government in Cheshire, Cumbria, Lancashire and North Yorkshire. We recognise that concern, and we take it very seriously, but we want to make sure that the referendums are held against a background of confidence in the voting system. We will of course aim to minimise the delay. In all events, given the need for primary legislation following a yes vote in one referendum to allow elected regional assemblies to be established and the associated local government reorganisation to take place, there is no reason why this revised timetable for the referendums should cause significant delay to the overall local government reorganisation timetable.

The extensive electoral pilots last June have much to teach us all. Already they have led the commission to revise some of its key conclusions about all-postal voting, which it had drawn from earlier, smaller pilots. The way is now clear for the people of the north-east to make their choice on an elected regional assembly for their region, and the people of the north-west and Yorkshire and the Humber can be confident that they, too, will be able to exercise their choice before too long.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con)

I thank the Minister for sending me a copy of his statement well in advance. I am bound to say that it contained no surprises and raised a wry smile on my face. The Electoral Commission report is clear on several points that the Government have hitherto denied. Turnout in the all-postal voting regions was only five percentage points higher than elsewhere, and not 50 per cent. up as the Government falsely claimed. The public do not trust all-postal voting, and major reforms are required to increase the security of postal voting, even if it is postal voting on demand.

Of course the report's key recommendation is to abandon all-postal voting for all future statutory elections and referendums.

The Electoral Commission has delivered the most astonishing and courageous snub to the Government on this policy. The Minister's statement is simply the latest lurch in the Government's conduct of policy on all-postal voting. First, in January they included the north-west and Yorkshire in the June postal pilots, against the advice of the Electoral Commission. Then the Government forced them through the House of Lords, ignoring all the warnings about the tight timetables and lack of public confidence. They insisted there were no problems, as the elections proceeded in an atmosphere of utter chaos. Ballot packs were misprinted. There were panic reprints. Ballot packs were lost in the post or delivered to the wrong voters. Some voters got no ballot packs at all; some got more ballot packs than they bargained for.

Most important, when ballot papers are distributed willy-nilly to thousands of people who have no intention of voting, all-postal voting allows almost unlimited scope for electoral fraud. So why, after the June elections, did the Government still insist that all-postal voting was "a success"? I notice the Minister is still using the word "successful" in relation to the pilots, If one has tested a system to destruction and to the satisfaction of everybody that it is an unsound system, I suppose that is a kind of success.

Only when Labour Back Benchers lined up against the Government to denounce all-postal ballots did they abandon all-postal referendums in Yorkshire and the north-west. Now, the whole system of all-postal voting has been roundly condemned by the Electoral Commission out of hand. Since those of us who issued warnings to the Government have been utterly vindicated, will the Minister now abandon all-postal voting in the north-east referendum? Will he confirm that the Electoral Commission is not calling for change? The only reason it is not calling for change is that Parliament approved the orders back in July. Of course it is not for the Electoral Commission to second-guess decisions of the House. It is for Parliament to revisit those decisions.

Has the Minister forgotten, incidentally, that back in July the commission opposed the Government laying the orders for the north-east referendum in the first place? So why did the Minister not quote the commission's disclaimer on the north-east referendum, which states: Nothing in this statement"— supporting the north-east referendum— should be interpreted as offering reassurance that … the referendum process in the North East will be risk free or secure a high degree of public support"? If that is not the commission washing its hands of the problem, I do not know what is. It does not want to be responsible for the Government's irresponsible intransigence.

The Minister has no answer to the following question: if it is wrong to go ahead in Yorkshire or the north-west, why should the people of the north-east have to use a discredited voting system in their referendum? May I suggest to the Minister what he should do? Why not abandon all-postal voting in the referendum and ask Parliament for the necessary powers to revert to the tried and tested ballot box? I note the point that the Electoral Commission makes about the far greater risk of changing the system now, but I do not quite understand the point that it makes.

Even if the Prime Minister wanted a general election on 4 November, are we to take the Electoral Commission's advice and let it tell us that there is far too great a risk for the Prime Minister to call a general election before Christmas? That is totally unreasonable. The Government have just moved a writ for the Hartlepool by-election on 30 September. Did I hear the Electoral Commission tell us that there is much too much risk to call a by-election at such short notice? If there is time to call a general election by 4 November, there is time to revert to a tried and tested voting system in the north-east—a voting system that the people of the north-east can trust. As was recommended by my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) in his private Member's Bill before the recess, surely the people of the north-east deserve the best voting system that we can provide for them.

The Minister is an honourable man. He would do much for his reputation and for the House if he admitted that the Government got it wrong. They are still getting the matter wrong. The right hon. Gentleman is carrying out his political masters' wish for all-postal voting because they hope to disguise the apathy towards Labour's unwanted elected regional assembly in the north-east. Labour's determination to carry on regardless clearly demonstrates that it puts self-interest before public interest and party before principle, and that it has no respect for the integrity of the constitution, which it should be Labour's duty to defend.

Mr. Raynsford

The hon. Gentleman showed his mastery of selective quoting in trying to support his point. He conveniently chose to ignore all evidence from the Electoral Commission that does not agree with his point of view. That reminds me of the position that the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) took in an earlier debate, in which he said that he did not care about the Electoral Commission's views, which indicates the seriousness of the Opposition when it comes to important matters of election procedure and probity.

The hon. Gentleman's first point was that the Electoral Commission had proved that the Government's claim that all-postal voting had doubled turnout was wrong. I shall quote paragraph 4.19, page 29 of the Electoral Commission report: While turnout more than doubled in pilot regions, it increased by only half that amount in non-pilot areas. The report states that, compared with the previous European election, the increase in the pilot areas was 109.46 per cent. and in the non-pilot regions it was 53.38 per cent. Most people with the slightest smattering of mathematics would say that the result in the pilot areas was double that in the non-pilot areas. It is astonishing that the hon. Gentleman should try to use a technical point about percentage points casuistically to claim that the Government have got the matter wrong, and I suggest that he read the report more carefully.

The hon. Gentleman went on to say that we held the all-postal pilots in June this year against the Electoral Commission's advice, but that is not true, because we consulted it at great length. The Electoral Commission recommended two regions as particularly suited to all-postal voting and four other regions as potentially suited to all-postal voting. We had previously asked the Electoral Commission to recommend three regions as suitable for all-postal voting and one region as suitable for an electronic pilot. In the event, the Commission did not recommend an electronic pilot, and we did not hold one. When we decided which regions should have all-postal pilots, we took the two regions that the Electoral Commission recommended as eminently suitable and two of the four regions that it recommended as potentially suitable. The hon. Gentleman's argument that we ignored the Electoral Commission's advice is simply untenable.

The hon. Gentleman repeated the exaggerated claims of problems associated with the pilots in June. If he examines page 50, paragraph 4.104 of the Electoral Commission report, he will read the following, which he might wish to ponder before he makes any rash allegations: In summary, we are not aware of any evidence to date to suggest any widespread abuse of postal voting, either in or beyond the pilot regions. Those are the words of the Electoral Commission.

The hon. Gentleman suggests that we should abandon the north-east referendum, against the advice of the Electoral Commission, which says that we should proceed. He quoted the Electoral Commission saying that it would not be safe, so I shall tell him what the Electoral Commission actually said: There is presently no evidence on which to conclude that an all-postal referendum in the North East would be unsafe in terms of fraud or malpractice. To the Commission's knowledge, no allegations of electoral fraud made in the North East in relation to the June all-postal pilot scheme have led to formal prosecutions". Those are the Electoral Commission's conclusions, and the hon. Gentleman does himself and his party no service by trying to ignore them.

The hon. Gentleman discussed the possibility of the referendum in the north-east being conducted by conventional means, against the clear advice of the Electoral Commission, which states that changing the basis of the referendum at this late stage would be risky. He also shows contempt for the views of people in the north-east, who have consistently shown their support for all-postal voting. The Opposition's position is simply not credible.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD)

I thank the Minister for his statement and for his usual courtesy in providing an advance copy.

As we are the only party to have consistently supported the recommendations of the Electoral Commission, no matter what they are, we very much welcome its total rejection of all-postal ballots for council elections. That is a huge victory for voters and for democracy, and a real setback for the Government. But why did not the Minister clarify whether he is accepting the recommendation unambiguously? Will he confirm that there will be no all-postal ballots in council elections in future and that that means that voters will be able to vote at their local polling station as now? The provision of the odd extra assistance and delivery point will not suffice and will not represent a true shift away from all-postal votes. The Minister may say that the position depends on the Electoral Commission's recommendation for the new foundation model of voting, but surely he can clarify what no all-postal voting means.

On the north-east referendum, the Minister is right and Conservative Front Benchers are wrong, because the Electoral Commission said in no uncertain terms that that vote could go ahead safely. Does he agree that the Conservatives' approach smacks of desperation, especially as only a few weeks ago they had U-turned and were in favour of the vote going ahead?

In the light of the Electoral Commission's report, does the Minister recognise that special care is needed to ensure that there are sufficient assistance and delivery points in rural areas in the north-east region?

Will the Minister say a little more about the timing of the referendums for the north-west and Yorkshire and the Humber regional assemblies? Does he agree that it would be wrong to give any impression that they will be deferred for long? Can he at least confirm that they will take place before the end of next year?

Will the Minister confirm—perhaps this is the final embarrassment for the Deputy Prime Minister—that the Electoral Commission is arguing that responsibility for every aspect of all elections be given to the Department for Constitutional Affairs and taken away from the ODPM once and for all?

Mr. Raynsford

I have got used to Liberal Democrats not being consistent, but I was somewhat taken aback by the confidence with which the hon. Gentleman began his remarks. He stated that his party was the only party to have consistently supported the Electoral Commission's recommendations, then went on to say that he welcomes its rejection of all-postal voting in its latest report. He has obviously forgotten that in its report into the 2003 pilots, the commission recommended that all-postal voting should become the norm for all local elections. If, as he claims, the Liberal Democrats have consistently supported the Electoral Commission's recommendations, they have clearly just about-turned on their previous position. If they agreed with that recommendation, they cannot now say that they are opposed to it yet have always been consistent. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has been let down.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman on the north-east. It is right to proceed with that referendum, and, as he rightly said, the Electoral Commission has stated that there is no sound basis whatever for postponing or cancelling it.

The hon. Gentleman raised an important point about assistance and delivery points. We have made provision for there to be more of those than in the pilots, with a minimum of one for each 50,000 of the population and the returning officer able to agree more in appropriate cases. We certainly support that and will work closely with the chief counting officer, who is the chief executive of Sunderland council, and the Electoral Commission to ensure that there is a good supply of assistance and delivery points where people can vote in person and in privacy if they choose to do so.

On the timetable for the north-west and Yorkshire and the Humber, it would not be appropriate to take a decision until we have had an opportunity to see the work that the Electoral Commission has developed on the foundation model. We expect its report to be available in March next year, and we will then be in a better position to reach a decision.

As for pulling together the responsibilities of two Departments, I did not notice in the Electoral Commission's report a recommendation as to which Department should take responsibility. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman read a different report from the one that I read. He should be a bit careful before drawing such inferences.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab)

I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on his decision not to rush ahead prematurely with a referendum on a regional assembly in the north-west, which some Labour Members believe that it would be very difficult to win. Given that there is uncertainty in councils across the north-west and, indeed, in Yorkshire and the Humber, is my right hon. Friend minded to decouple any proposals for local government reform from the principal question of whether to establish regional assemblies?

Mr. Raynsford

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments on the Government's decision to proceed in the north-east and postpone the referendums in the north-west and Yorkshire and the Humber. I made it clear in my statement that we accepted that there was some uncertainty about local government reorganisation and that we wanted to press ahead as soon as possible. However, it has always been our position that there must be a link between a vote in favour of an elected regional assembly and the creation of a streamlined, unitary local government structure to avoid a proliferation of tiers of government and to ensure a streamlined and efficient administration. That remains the Government's policy.

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con)

Despite the Minister's brave words on fraud and postal voting, he must accept that considerable concern remains. In the run-up to all-postal voting, New Zealand was used as a positive example. The mayor of Auckland informed me that he estimates that at least 50 per cent. of the increased turnout is down to fraud, and Auckland has had a little more practice than here. In the light of those concerns, does the Minister accept that a yes vote in the north-east should carry a substantial majority? What would he accept as the minimum figures for both a yes and a no vote?

Mr. Raynsford

I agree about the importance of turnout. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not jump to the conclusion that a substantial increase in turnout is associated with fraud. All the evidence of the Electoral Commission's work in the pilots that were conducted in 2000, 2002, 2003 and again this year shows no substantial fraud in postal voting in the pilot areas or elsewhere. That is the Electoral Commission's considered judgment. All-postal pilots have resulted in a substantial increase in the number of participants in elections. That is a serious matter. No party can afford to ignore a decline in participation in the democratic process. We must be serious in trying to engage people and use sensible ways of doing that.

However, I agree about the importance of confidence in the voting system. That is why we have greatly welcomed the Electoral Commission's proposals on the way forward through exploring a foundation model that would contain the benefits of increased convenience—and therefore the likelihood of higher turnout, which came with all-postal voting—and also choice for the electorate who want to vote in person, in the traditional way. That is the right way forward and we shall work closely with the Electoral Commission on developing that model.

Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North) (Lab)

People in the north-east will greatly welcome my right hon. Friend's decision to proceed with the referendum. They will also welcome the decision not to have the bureaucratic witness system with postal voting. One of my constituents described it to me as "Something daft that them down south thought up." The effect of the witness system was not to deal with fraud—in fact, it encouraged some people to commit fraud as witnesses—but to deter many people, who found it too bureaucratic, from voting. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that adequate publicity is given to the change well in advance of 4 November?

Mr. Raynsford

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words about our decision to press ahead in the north-east. He knows that there is absolute support throughout the north-east for conducting the referendum and for using all-postal ballots. As the Electoral Commission points out, the north-east has had greater experience, from 2000 onwards, of all-postal ballots, and its survey shows greater public confidence in all-postal voting in the north-east than in any other region. We are therefore convinced that it is right to proceed.

My hon. Friend mentioned the problem with the witness statements in June. He may be interested to know that a council by-election has subsequently been held, using all-postal votes but without a witness statement, in Darlington. It was held at the end of August and the turnout was some five percentage points higher than in June, when witness statements were used. That is interesting evidence that should be taken into account. [Interruption.] Before Opposition Members laugh, they should remember that, before the pilots that the Government initiated in 2000, it had sadly become common for turnout in local council by-elections to fall to derisory levels of 10 per cent. or thereabouts. In Darlington, the turnout was 38.9 per cent. for a council by-election in August.

That is an indication that all-postal voting has been able to reverse the trend of decline and has made it possible for more people to vote, which is not something that we should lightly disregard.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford) (Con)

The Minister will be aware that, behind some of the knockabout in which he has been indulging, the serious issue is whether he is going to set up a referendum that will have the shadow of fraud over it, which would mean that the cloud of fraud would hang over all elections conducted in this way. I am sure that he would want to avoid that. If the only difference between the pilots and the referendum is to be the removal of the witness statements, perhaps because of a bureaucratic problem, that would mean that the amount of checks against fraud would be reduced. The shadow of fraud would therefore be greater in the referendum than it was in the pilots. Does the Minister acknowledge that it is not enough simply to talk about turnout? People need to be confident that it is not only the number of votes that has increased, but the number of voters as well, and that the increased turnout is not due to fraud. The Minister is reducing the protection against fraud under this new system.

Mr. Raynsford

The Electoral Commission quite clearly says in its statement: There is presently no evidence on which to conclude that an all-postal referendum in the north-east would be unsafe in terms of fraud or malpractice. That is the considered view of the commission, and the hon. Gentleman should pay attention to that. He is incorrect to say that the only change between the June pilot and the November referendum will be the removal of the witness statement. The other very significant change, to which the commission referred in its report, is the availability of far more extensive advice and delivery points, at which people will be able to vote in person, in privacy, if they wish to do so. That is a further significant change, in response to the genuine concerns voiced by people who want the opportunity to vote in person. We are therefore proceeding on the basis of the informed view of the Electoral Commission, and of the evidence that the north-east has consistently been able to achieve higher levels of participation and turnout as a result of all-postal voting without any evidence of a serious problem of fraud or malpractice.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab)

Many people in the north-west will, like the Government, very much regret the fact that this issue has been deferred in our region. They will, however, understand the announcement that my right hon. Friend has made today. They support the Government's wish to give more democratic accountability on regional strategic and financial issues, and they want to see that done as soon as possible. They also believe that unitary authorities, to which the Labour Government are committed, provide better local government. I hope that, as soon as the foundation voting system is established, we can go ahead with the referendum in the north-west as soon as possible. I still hope to see that happen before I retire at the next general election, which need not be until 2006.

Mr. Raynsford

I note and entirely support my hon. Friend's concern to see that the people of the north-west are given the opportunity to vote on an elected regional assembly in a referendum at the earliest opportunity. He will understand that, given the various other factors that might come into play next year, I cannot give him an absolute assurance of the kind that he seeks. I have said, however, that we will give serious consideration to the Electoral Commission's proposed foundation model as soon as we see it, and we shall be working with the commission as it develops it. I hope to be able to make a statement—at the very least—on our decision in relation to the north-west and to Yorkshire and the Humber while my hon. Friend is still a Member of the House.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD)

Does the Minister agree that a strong, independently elected regional assembly for the north-west would be a strong bulwark against arbitrary central Government decisions such as the cancellation of funding for the Metrolink tram in Greater Manchester, and his own Department's decision to refuse the Ikea application in Stockport? Will he therefore give the House a strong assurance that the fastest possible progress will be made on implementing this very important proposal?

Mr. Raynsford

We share the hon. Gentleman's view that there should be greater devolution to the regions, and we believe that decisions should be taken on matters affecting regional economic development and regional planning at regional level wherever possible.

That is right and proper. I do not accept his view on Metrolink, on which the issue is under consideration, but I share his view entirely on the benefits of devolution. Our commitment is to allow people in the English regions the opportunity to have effective, elected regional assemblies, which are able to take decisions on matters that affect their region and to improve the economic performance and quality of life of their people.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con)

Now that even the Minister appears to have followed the Electoral Commission in realising that all-postal votes are wrong, and he is talking about the electorate rightly having a choice as to how they vote in future, can we assume that the referendum in the north-east will be the very last all-postal ballot?

Mr. Raynsford

Before the right hon. Gentleman tries to rewrite history, let me remind him that a year ago, the Electoral Commission reported on the 2003 pilots, and recommended that all-postal voting should become the norm in local government elections. That was not the Government's recommendation but the Electoral Commission's. We did not accept that recommendation; we believed that it was right to continue with pilots. We have done so, and we have learned a great deal from further pilots. We believe that that has helped to inform progress towards what has always been our objective: multi-channel elections, which allow people the opportunity and choice to vote by means that they find most convenient. We have not reached a final decision on the Electoral Commission's report and recommendations, but I have indicated clearly our sympathy and support for the concept of the multi-channel foundation model that it is working up, which is entirely consistent with our approach, which we have enunciated for several years.

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

The Government accept that support for regional government in the north-west and in Yorkshire and the Humber is less than in the north-east. If the north-east votes no, or if the turnout is derisory, will the Minister undertake not to proceed with costly and time-wasting referendums in those regions? Will he also give an answer to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), and give a percentage for what he thinks is an acceptable majority and a derisory turnout?

Mr. Raynsford

It is a slightly odd argument that people in the hon. Gentleman's region and in Yorkshire and the Humber should not be allowed an opportunity to express their view, which may differ from the view expressed in the north-east. The whole basis of the Government's policy is choice: each region will be given a choice. It would be wrong to cancel arbitrarily that opportunity simply because another region had voted in a particular way. That is not democracy or common sense.

On the issue of thresholds, the hon. Gentleman will know the perverse consequences that come when an arbitrary threshold is set, and when a referendum or other election is not valid unless a particular turnout is achieved. That crippled the move towards devolution in Scotland in the late 1970s—an arbitrary 40 per cent. threshold was set even though the people of Scotland voted in favour of devolution. Because that threshold was not met, they could not proceed, and were deeply unhappy about that decision for 20 years. His party's annihilation from the Scottish electoral scene is in no small measure due to its failure to understand the anger of the Scots about the failure of this Parliament to allow them the opportunity for devolution.

Apart from that, the other issue is the perverse incentive that if a threshold is set, those who believe that they cannot beat their opponents and win the argument by voting can try to do so simply by not voting. That should not be welcome in a democracy. We want to encourage turnout, that is what we are doing, and that is why we are pursuing measures designed to increase participation in both local government elections and referendums.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con)

The Minister's Department, I believe, is signed up to the Plain English Campaign. Can he tell us what is meant by a basis for future multi-channel elections to develop a new foundation model of voting"?

Mr. Raynsford

The hon. Gentleman has, I hope, been listening to the debate, and will know that the Electoral Commission has set out its proposals for a new model that would include provision for people to vote by post, in person and electronically. That is multi-channel. I have referred to that several times, and most people who have followed the debate understand it.

I entirely accept that the language used by the commission in the passage quoted by the hon. Gentleman is not necessarily the kind of language in which he would talk to his constituents in the Dog and Duck, but I assure him that our objective is increasing participation and giving people choice, so that they can vote by a means that is practical and convenient to them. That will give us the best chance of increasing turnout, and ensuring that the sad decline in electoral participation that poses a real threat to the health of our democracy is reversed.