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Alistair Burt: Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman advances an interesting proposition about the devolution of party policy and the way it is put together. Is he honestly telling the House that his party has no national policy on whether it supports regional assemblies? If so, will he explain some other areas of devolution in party policy, because that might explain why leaflets in Liberal areas in different parts of the country give completely different stories in relation to a variety of policies?
Mr. Davey: On the last point, the hon. Gentleman is talking absolute nonsense. Across the country, we campaign strongly on issues such as post offices, pharmacies, council tax, Iraq and many others. The hon. Gentleman is clearly absolutely confused. I simply say to him that it is quite in order for a national party to believe in elected regional assemblies, but to give the decision on whether to support that to the regional party. That is completely logical and it is called devolution.
We have made it clear on many occasions that we believe that there should be a review of regional boundaries. We do not believe that the administrative boundaries of the Government office for the south-west constitute sensible boundaries for the south-west.
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During the passage of the paving Bill we argued for a review of regional boundaries to cover the sort of point that has just been made.
The Government were right to move on devolution and today we saw a report from the university of Sheffield explaining how the division between the north and the south has got significantly worse, despite efforts by this Labour Government to redress that. It has not been getting worse simply during the last few years, but for decades. When one stands back and tries to analyse why the trend has occurred, and whether it has something to do with industrial change or other economic forces, one sees that the fundamental reason why the problem has occurred in Britain but not in other western democracies is political centralisation. We are the most centralised country in the western world and because of that we have financial and economic centralisation, and all the forces of power in the country go into that central political power. Until we break that up, until we have regional devolution and have centres of political power across the UK, we will not see the reversal of that trend, which has been going on for decades. Such a change must be made if we are to tackle problems in the north. There can be other types of regional policyindeed, we have seen them in the past. There have been economic incentives and grants, and the garden city initiative launched by Lord Heseltine in Liverpool, which did not work. Those types of regional policy did not work because they were not underpinned by political devolution. That is why the Government are right to take the direction they are taking, and why the Tories are utterly misguided yet again in opposing it.
Mr. Heath: May I ask my hon. Friend not to add credence to the concept of a single north-south divide? The divide is actually between London and the home counties, and the rest of the country. The west country is just as disadvantaged as the north and needs just as much the opportunities for regional government.
Mr. Davey: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The north-south divide is a simplification. There are people in Kingston and Surbiton who would say that the constituency is homogenously prosperous, but it is not. Parts of the royal borough of Kingston, which is usually considered a prosperous area, are very poor. Of course, these debates are based on generalisations and simplifications, but there is still a general truth in the idea that there has been a north-south divide, with demographic and economic shifts, and that we need to reverse the trend through political action.
Although the Government are right to go down the path of regional devolution, there has been some confusion in aspects of the way in which they have handled the matter. I wish to deal with three of them in turn: first, the current debate about all-postal voting; secondly, the powers that the draft powers Bill may or may not contain; and, thirdly, the future course of devolution after the three referendums.
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The Liberal Democrats support the general proposition that the referendums should be conducted with all-postal ballots, primarily because the problems that arise with such ballots in local elections will not arise in an event such as a regional referendum. The incentive for individual candidates to defraud the system and their ability to try to harvest votesan issue mentioned by the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin)are much reduced because of the scale of the vote. Furthermore, the logistics of an all-postal ballot over a whole region are much simpler. Many of the arguments against all-postal ballots in local elections do not apply to regional referendums.
Mr. Jenkin: I accept some of the hon. Gentleman's arguments, but there is a real problem in respect of vote harvesting. Turnout in the referendums is likely to be low, and there will be many multiple occupancy homes or blocks of flats where the mail is left on the doorstep. Large numbers of ballot papers may simply be left in that way, and it would be easy for any organisation to collect and use them. If such fraud occurs, its scale will be almost impossible to detect. What is to prevent an unscrupulous organisation or indeed an unscrupulous partyand there are one or twofrom destroying the process by organising the use of unused ballot papers? There is a very serious danger that there will be enough such activity seriously to distort the result.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I do not want to stifle debate, but interventions must not be too long. We are rapidly running out of time. I am not being unfair to the hon. Gentleman, but the Front Benchers have taken an awfully long time so far.
Mr. Davey: I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Essex, because he made a serious point. Of course there remains the possibility of vote harvesting, but it is less likely to arise than in a local election ballot. That is my major point, but I am concerned that the Government, in the orders that they have laid before the House, are moving from including the declaration of identity on the all-postal ballot form. I know that the declaration was unpopular with some Labour Back Benchers, but we felt that it was one device for ensuring scrutiny and defending the integrity of the all-postal ballot system. The Government's proposals on alternative security arrangements seem flawed.
Mr. Raynsford: Does the hon. Gentleman recall that the Electoral Commission recommended that the separate confirmation and scrutiny of identity was not a particularly sensible way forward? Will he consult the Electoral Commission on the issue and assess its view?
Mr. Davey: The Electoral Commission was keen on a voter registration system as the better way of proceeding. We are keen on such a system in the longer term, when it can be set up. In the meantime, before it is set up, as we and the Electoral Commission want, we think that the declaration of identity is the best interim proposal for guaranteeing the integrity of the postal ballot.
The reason we are in this position and why we have to wait for the Electoral Commission's review of the June elections is that the Deputy Prime Minister did not listen
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to the commission in the first place. All the problems that we saw on 10 June and in the run-up to the elections could have been avoided if he had listened to Sam Younger and his colleague on the Electoral Commission, and also listened to this House. This House and the other place were strong in setting out arguments to the Government and trying to get them to think again. The Government failed, and they caused the problems by doing so. As those problems have had to be reviewed and scrutinised, we now have to wait for a decision on the all-postal ballots and whether the referendums will occur. The delay is the Deputy Prime Minister's fault, and he should apologise.
Andy Burnham : As we had three pilotsit was the nature of the exercise that they should be pilotsin the three northern regions, is there not a much better chance that the referendum process will run smoothly?
I am afraid that the problem is even greater than I have suggested so far. A lot of public confidence has been undermined by the shenanigans that we saw in the run-up to 10 June. Some members of the public feel that the all-postal ballot system is not secure, and they have less confidence in it as a result. That is a great shame, and it is something that the Electoral Commission and this House will have to consider. Such people may be wrong, and the Minister may say that the press have created a misperception, but it is still a fact that people feel that way. As we go ahead in trying to use all-postal ballots in events such as the referendums, we will have to walk carefully. There is some confusion in the way in which the Government have gone about conducting the process, and I very much regret that they were not more open with Parliament last week about the fact that the Electoral Commission had given advice on the matter.
The other area of confusion is the powers that the elected regional assemblies will have. That is an important point in relation to whether the referendums occur. As the hon. Member for North Essex said, there is a suspicionI am sure that the Minister will deny that this is the casethat the Electoral Commission report that will be published in September will be convenient for the Government, as it will give them a chance to think about whether they want the referendums in the first place, whether they can win them and whether their own party is happy to proceed with them. The reason they have got to that position is that they know that what is on offer in terms of regional devolution is weak. Even the devolutionists in their party are concerned about that. The Government must reflect carefully on that point before they publish the draft powers Bill. If they were to devolve many more powers, they would change the tone of the debate both within their own party and within the three northern regions. That would galvanise the referendum campaigns and allow the Government to proceed with the referendums with greater certainty and confidence after they receive the Electoral Commission report in October or November.
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