HL Deb 08 September 2004 vol 664 cc564-7

3.10 p.m.

Baroness Hanham asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why, in light of the Electoral Commission's report of 27 August, they propose to proceed with an all-postal ballot in the referendum for the North East Regional Assembly.

The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker)

My Lords, it is in the light of the Electoral Commission's report as published on 27 August in relation to the North East Regional Assembly referendum that the Government are proceeding as planned.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that with the Electoral Commission's report, the Government have now comprehensively lost the argument about all-postal voting? Does he not agree that the one that will take place in the north-east can do so only on the basis that the Government bounced Parliament into a decision before the Electoral Commission was able to report on the all-postal pilots? Has the Minister noted the Electoral Commission's position that it can offer no reassurances that the ballot in the north-east will be risk-free? Does he not now wish that he had left untampered with the position of voting in this country?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I can only draw the noble Baroness's attention, and that of the House, to the report of the Electoral Commission, published on 27 August, which I presume that she has read. The fifth paragraph of the report made the matter quite clear when it said: In relation to the North East referendum, our conclusion is that the referendum should proceed as an all-postal ballot without major changes to the process". The Electoral Commission gave a series of other reasons why it believed the north-east referendum should proceed, including the fact that Parliament had approved the orders and that counting officers are currently making the necessary arrangements. It said that no evidence had been found, that an all-postal referendum in the North East would be unsafe in terms of fraud or malpractice". The commission also said that: Voters and election professionals in the North East have substantial previous experience of all-postal ballots". and that the, public is more positive about all-postal voting £hellip; in the North East". That is the position. The Electoral Commission said that its conclusion was that what was planned for the north-east should proceed, and that is what is going to happen.

Baroness Maddock

My Lords, given that the ballot will be all-postal in the north-east referendum in the autumn, could the Minister ensure that there are sufficient drop-off points within rural Northumberland to ensure that people do not have to travel long distances? Noble Lords will know that I am married to the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed. In that role, I drive him round every year on his surgery tour of his constituency. Last week, many people asked us whether we could get something done to ensure that people had the opportunity to drop off their postal vote in person and not travel too far.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the short answer to the noble Baroness's question is, yes. I cannot give precise numbers, but those matters are being considered. The matter was raised on 22 July—that there will be sufficient drop-off points for people to place their ballot paper, which they have received by post, at an appropriate and convenient location.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, broadening the subject slightly, could the Minister tell noble Lords what, other than political considerations, are the criteria by which the Government decide on having referendums on regional assemblies in some parts of the country but not in others?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I know that I shall get myself into trouble with the noble Lord for saying this, but a few weeks ago the powers that be in this place sent everyone a note that said that supplementary questions should be confined to the subject of the original Question. I have nothing to add to what I have already said.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree

My Lords, on the particular Question that the House is addressing, how concerned is the Minister about the clear allegations of fraud in Birmingham in particular—a place that he and I know well? Is that not something that has greatly concerned the people of Birmingham, because the proof seems to be very clear?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I do not want to fall out with the noble Baroness either, but I quote again from the report of the Electoral Commission, to be found on its website. It says: 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". It is the most risk-free area of the country. I am not in a position—for the reasons that I have just given, notwithstanding the fact that I am not briefed on the issue—to speak about anything other than the northeast referendum.

In relation to the earlier question that I was asked, our intention is to have one drop-off point for every 50,000 voters, and more at the counting officer's discretion—so at least the constituencies would be covered.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, taking into account the Electoral Commission's report, do the Government have any proposals to go forward with further all-postal pilots in the local elections next year, given among other things that that is a very possible date for the next general election?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, all that I can say on that matter is that at some time during the course of next week my right honourable friend Nick Raynsford will make a Statement in the other place in relation to the other two regions.

Lord Lawson of Blaby

My Lords, the Minister has just asserted that the north-east of England is the most risk-free area of the entire country. What is his evidence for that statement?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, as I have said, that matter is dealt with in the two-page report of the Electoral Commission on its website. That region has more experience, because there have been more postal pilots in the north-east region than any other region in the country. Bearing in mind that it is quite a small region in terms of percentage of population, the figure is quite high. As I have said, the commission's report states: 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 … The public is more positive about all-postal voting", in that area.

With all the background and reasons given in the Electoral Commission's report, it also makes the point—I accept this—that Parliament had already approved the issue. However, the Government said that if there was opposition by the Electoral Commission, we would not proceed. That is what we meant; but it has turned out not to be the case with regard to the north-east.

Lord Clark of Windermere

My Lords, would my noble friend the Minister confirm to the House that the Electoral Commissioner has actually endorsed Parliament's decision to go ahead with an all-postal ballot for the referendums in the north-east?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, yes, that is precisely the point that is made in the Electoral Commission's report.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, the Minister has already stated that it is up to the returning officer to allow one drop-off point for 50,000 people, but that more could be arranged. As parts of Northumberland are the most sparsely populated areas in England, could a geographically rather than numerically based drop-off point be arranged? Where I live, people could travel 30 miles to a drop-off point and still not meet that figure of 50,000.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, we have every confidence in the professional work of the counting officers to make an absolute success of this referendum and make sure that it is as convenient for people as possible. It is different from the June election, in that it is a referendum and therefore not about personalities or candidates. It is in everyone's interest that everyone has the right to participate, so everyone will get a postal ballot, and it will be ensured that the ballots are delivered and printed properly. We have every confidence that the counting officer will make available drop-off points for ballot papers at convenient locations in sparsely populated areas.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Electoral Commission's key recommendation was that there should never again be an all-postal ballot in this country? Does he not agree that the Electoral Commission in its opening statement said that it was able to go along with the north-east all-postal ballot only because the Government had already had that passed through Parliament? It did not give a ringing endorsement of that ballot; it said that it could give no reassurances that the ballot would be safe. Does the Minister agree that that is against the background of the recommendation that there should never again be an all-postal ballot in this country.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, with due respect, if that was the issue that the noble Baroness wanted to raise, she should have asked that question. The Question she asked was specifically about the north-east, where there is going to be one referendum. There are no referendums planned elsewhere.

I do not want to mislead the noble Baroness on the commission's report, which is only two pages long. It made the point that: In relation to the North East referendum, our conclusion is that the referendum should proceed as an all-postal ballot without major changes to the process". It then went on to say: In our view, it would be a far greater risk to the process if significant changes were to be made now than if the referendum were to continue as planned". The document also states: Our judgment is also based on a number of additional factors that are specific to this referendum. These are as follows:". The document listed some of the points that I made earlier; namely, Parliament had approved the order; counting officers are making the necessary arrangements; the form of the postal balloting for the referendum is different and an improvement on the piloted form in June; there is no evidence that an all-postal referendum in the north-east would be unsafe in terms of fraud and malpractice and the relevant voters have experience of all-postal ballots. All those reasons were given in the report to justify its conclusion that the referendum should proceed.

The Earl of Northesk

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the Government have endorsed the findings of the Electoral Commission by withdrawing the regulations in respect of the other two areas?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, that cannot be the case because we did not move the regulations on 22 July, which, of course, was five weeks before the report was received and published.