Votes on regional government are postponed

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The Government today postponed referendums on regional government in North West and Yorkshire and the Humber, originally scheduled for November 4.

The Government today postponed referendums on regional government in North West and Yorkshire and the Humber, originally scheduled for November 4.

Lord Rooker, Minister at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, told the House of Lords that the referendum in the North East would go ahead.

The delay is an embarrassment for Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who has made the creation of regional assemblies the centrepiece of his plans for reform of local government.

Orders for the referendums were voted through the House of Commons only last night, and the Lords were due to debate them today. Lord Rooker told peers that a decision to postpone was taken at Cabinet this morning.

Doubts were raised over the referendums because of administrative difficulties and allegations of electoral fraud in the all-postal ballots trialled in the June 10 local government and European Parliament elections.

All three regional referendums were due to be held on an all-postal basis. The Electoral Commission is investigating complaints over the June ballots, but is not due to report until August 27.

A spokesman for the ODPM said that new dates for the postponed referendums would be set after the Government has had time to consider the Commission's findings.

Lord Rooker said the Government remained "committed" to holding referendums in the two regions where polls have been delayed.

He told peers: "Concerns have been raised about all-postal ballots, drawing on some of the experiences on postal voting in the recent pilots.

"There were differences of views on all-postal ballots.

"This week the Electoral Commission announced they intend to publish their evaluation report of the June pilots and recommendations for future use of all-postal ballots before Parliament returns in September.

"The debates in the Commons also demonstrated again the solid support and expectations for an early referendum in the North East region of England. None of the concerns raised about all postal ballots related to the North East."

He added: "We have been reflecting overnight on these developments and on the range of opinions expressed during the debate on the orders. We are a listening Government.

"Except where there is a pressing expectation and support for an early all-postal referendum, we have concluded the right course now is not to proceed with the orders setting up referendums on November 4 but to await the Electoral Commission's report."

Conservative regional government spokesman Bernard Jenkin said: "This is a deeply embarrassing retreat for the Government in the face of Conservative pressure over Mr Prescott's plans for the regional assemblies.

"It is little more than a cynical ploy to spare the Government's humiliation in regions where there is no public demand for another pointless layer of bureaucracy which would only take power even further away from local communities.

"Mr Prescott's decision to announce the postponement on the last day before the summer holidays is a transparent attempt to bury bad news.

"From the start, Mr Prescott's regions plans have been shambolic. With his own party completely split over the assemblies, Mr Prescott is now playing fast and loose with dates and rules, in the meantime effectively crippling local government in these regions as the threat of the removal of their powers hangs over them."

Liberal Democrat local government spokesman Edward Davey said: "Yesterday, Labour announced their plans for active citizenship, to get people more involved in their communities. But today, their plans are exposed as cynical headline-chasing.

"Rather than chickening out, ministers should be offering electors more power.

"Liberal Democrats had previously told ministers their plans were too weak to win a 'yes' vote, and it looks like today, they've realised we were right.

"It's a sad day for democracy, a backward step for devolution and a fatal moment for the Deputy Prime Minister."

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who has championed regional government, said the decision reflects "great concern" over postal ballots.

Mr Prescott insisted: "We are not cancelling them. There are going to be consultations in the North West and Yorkshire and Humberside. We are very much committed to that."

He rejected suggestions that the postal ballot issue was a smokescreen and the referendums had been cancelled to prevent a Government defeat close to the election.

Mr Prescott told BBC Radio 4's The World at One: "These are matters of judgment - whether you can win.

"I think we can win. I want to get into the fight. I'm disappointed to avoid fights.

"At the moment we will have that conducted in the North East and I am certainly coming back to Yorkshire and Humberside and the North West because when I did the consultations in these regions, in fact in many ways the proportion of people voting to say they would like a referendum was greater than in the North East."