HC Deb 02 April 1979 vol 965 cc1030-46

"Any candidate in the parliamentary election may include in their free postal delivery provided by the Post Office election literature relating to candidates in the district council elections."—[Mr. Beith.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I think that the purpose of the clause will gain general acceptance. Because I was called away during the Home Secretary's speech, I do not know whether he made any comment on the matter in the latter part of it.

It seems likely to me that two situations will arise quite commonly in the unusual circumstance of having two different elections on the same day. One is that some parties in some places may decide to issue joint election addresses, in which the names of local election candidates appear alongside the name of the parliamentary candidate. There are areas in which that is possible.

I am not recommending that course of action to the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English), and I shall not be following it myself, but it seems to me to be a reasonable possibility and one that it would be difficult to exclude. I take it that the legislation as it stands does not exclude it. Perhaps the Minister of State could clarify whether the literature could serve both purposes and that therefore the expenses could be divided under apportionment between the expenses of the two election campaigns.

I take it that there is no objection under the Bill or any existing legislation to the literature's being included in the same envelope. What happens if separate literature for the parliamentary and local election candidates in the same area is included in the same envelope? We wish to make clear on the face of the Bill that that should be permitted. It would seem to be of reasonable assistance to political parties and those involved in organising the elections, and a convenience to the voters. The constant stream of literature through the post day by day would at least be in a little more organised form if two sets of literature came in the same envelope.

Therefore, I press the case that that should be explicitly permitted under the Bill. I ask the Minister to make clear whether the Bill as it stands precludes that and whether it precludes literature bearing the names of both parliamentary and local candidates on the same sheet of paper. Our amendment presumes that joint literature would be permitted but implies that separate literature within the same envelope might not be permitted and might need the explicit permission which would be within the Bill if the clause were carried.

I hope that the Minister will assist the Committee by explaining precisely what the law would be if the Bill passed in its present form. I hope that he will sympathetically consider the argument that the law should explicitly provide for the two kinds of literature to be contained in the same free post envelope.

8 p.m.

Mr. John

I have to resist the Liberal amendment and to tell the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) that at present, as he will know, parliamentary candidates are entitled to free postage and local election candidates are not so entitled. The Post Office would, therefore, not accept communications relating to other than parliamentary elections. I think that it was the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) who was talking earlier about introducing major constitutional issues in the last days of a Parliament. The new clause would involve a considerable innovation, which I do not believe would be required purely for the purposes of 3 May.

Therefore, because I think that it is outside the law as at present framed, I would not advise that these joint election addresses should be introduced.

Secondly, although the cost aspect of the free post might be exaggerated, the administrative burden would be considerable, because, as has been pointed out this evening by a number of hon. Members, local government districts and parliamentary constituencies are not coterminous. Indeed, they are still overlapping. Therefore, I do not believe that that would be a satisfactory position.

But there is even a further point, which I ask hon. Members to accept. As I understand the new clause, it would apply where a local government candidate had a counterpart of the same party standing for a parliamentary election who was willing to put the local government candidate's material into his particular envelope. This may draw distinctions between those candidates of whom parliamentary candidates may approve, and, therefore, include their literature, and those whom they may exclude. The excluded candidates would have either an advantage or a disadvantage, according to how one views the popularity of the Member or parliamentary candidate concerned. But, even more so, independent candidates who have no counterparts at parliamentary level would be at a distinct disadvantage in the election from having to fight the election against major parties which would have the facility of the free post, which they would not have.

It is for those insuperable reasons that I recommend that the Committee should not accept the new clause.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Quite apart from the merits of the proceedings, am I not right in believing that the new clause does not fall within the money resolution, and that to perform this function at public expense without the money resolution falls without the Standing Orders of the House?

Mr. John

The money resolution authorises payment out of the Consolidated Fund. The free post facility is paid for out of that fund, so I believe that technically this would come within the money resolution. However, I understand the drafting problems only too well, and I do not believe in taking those technical points. I think that there are many more substantial points of principle against the new clause, which is why I advise the Committee not to accept it.

Mr. Ogden

My hon. Friend the Minister has put forward some doubts about the merits of the new clause. I would support it from my own local knowledge and experience. We all have to consider how an amendment would affect our constituencies. We all represent various kinds of constituencies. Mine happens to be an urban constituency. It is very small in area. My constituency party covers exactly the same area as the four wards within it. We do not go over anyone else's boundaries—parishes, metropolitan counties or anything else.

I should like to put two points to my hon. Friend. In this coming campaign I shall certainly be saying that my duties as my constituents' Member of Parliament and my effectiveness as their Member have been limited because there is a difference between those who control the city council and those who control this national Parliament. In Liverpool we have a city council controlled by the Liberals and the Conservatives. One would expect that their policies would be exactly the same as those supported on their Benches here at Westminster. There- fore, what the Liberal and Conservative alliance does in the Liverpool city council inevitably affects what the Members of Parliament for West Derby, Walton, Garston or anywhere else there can do.

There happen to be two elections on one day. They are interdependent. The city council's policies have effects on Parliament, and Parliament's policies have effects on the city council.

I shall have to say "The Government decided that these two elections would be held on the same day." It cannot be said to me "But you must not say anything at all about the Liverpool city council. You stick to the parliamentary matters and we shall stick to the other matters. You keep your election addresses quite separate."

Mr. John

I do not say that my hon. Friend may not refer to local government matters in his parliamentary election literature. Of course he may do so and will do so. What I am saying is that local government candidates cannot be included as addressing the electorate about local government matters within the free post facility.

Mr. Ogden

That is the whole purpose of this debate. It is to find out what can and cannot be done. Therefore, I can refer briefly, just in passing, to the difficulties which the Liberals and Conservatives have caused me as the Member of Parliament for West Derby. I can also refer, if I wish, to the help which ought to come from my constituents, from my Labour candidates in Dovecot, Gillmoss, Croxteth and Clubmoor. I can ask my electors to help me in my duties as Member of Parliament by supporting my Labour candidates in the local government elections.

I can, I believe—I want this absolutely on record—put forward my normal voters' guide, which usually says "We are not sending you poll cards this time, but if you were to support me"—and I can—I take this as important—ask on the back of the guide for them to vote—

Mr. English

Generally or specifically?

Mr. Ogden

Specifically. This is what I want to find out. I can, because it is my election address and literature, say "If you want to help me in this parliamentary election and in my duties as a Member of Parliament in the next Parliament, vote Ogden for MP, and vote Murphy, or Lafferty or Westbury"—or anyone else who happens to be named in my guide; just as I can say in the middle of that "If you vote for the Tories you will be voting for trouble." However, I gather that I cannot include in my free post an election address from a local government candidate.

I think that that would be the situation as outlined. But provided that I am within the limits regarding weight, decided by the regulations, as to what may be included—I am not advertising Little—woods Pools, as I was a little while ago—that would be valid. The parliamentary candidate can refer to that. We can do it in whatever variations we like. But we cannot actually include in our free post something which is only the direct concern of the local election candidates.

I hope that my hon. Friend will say that that is right and is the correct interpretation. I would still support the other interpretation, because the really important thing, for both the Post Office and postmen, is how much postmen will have to lug around on their shoulders. If there are to be 50,000 envelopes going around in West Derby, Liverpool, provided that each envelope weighs no more than it would otherwise have weighed and it is decent literature—we all have various ideas about what that is—and if it is political, and provided that the weight limit is adhered to, I cannot see the Post Office objecting. If we wanted to put half a pound of postage in an envelope, clearly that would cause difficulties.

However, these two campaigns will inevitably be interlocked. I see no good reason why the free post should not be used for this purpose.

Mr. English

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) has raised a point that is utterly relevant. I understand the peculiar corcumstances of Liverpool. I shall not go into those. However, my hon. Friend is obviously quite right in saying that the Post Office would not refuse an envelope that was within the Post Office regulations.

I think, however, that my hon. Friend—possibly with his tongue in his cheek—was expressing his view of the law in a rather extensive way. I should have thought that the matter of electoral expenses, which has nothing to do with the Post Office but a great deal to do with the Representation of the People Acts, is relevant here. If my hon. Friend wanted to include the names of his local candidates, for example, I should have thought that that would mean that if there were, for the sake of argument, 20 of them, one twenty-first part of the expenses should be his and the rest of the expenses should be divided amongst the 20 people. Also, I should have thought that he should put a stamp on the envelope, because he could not use the free post facility for them.

Mr. Ogden

My hon. Friend is talking about separate literature. I was saying that I had four wards and that in each of those four wards there would be Ogden for Member of Parliament and Murphy or someone else for local councillor. If anyone can work out how much it costs to put one additional word on one card, he will be extremely clever.

Mr. English

We are both asking the Minister, who no doubt will tell us shortly, but, as I understand the law, it is that if a piece of literature promotes a given candidate, as distinct from being a general piece of literature—we none of us charge the cost of the political parties' morning press conferences in London and split it amongst the constituencies—it must be charged to that candidate's expenses. That is how I understand it, though we are really asking the question in the course of discussing this new clause. But an hon. Member cannot in the first place put that piece of literature into the free post because the free post is only for parliamentary candidates—in other words, for himself. He has to put a stamp on it. Secondly, since it mentions all those names, the cost of printing it would have to be divided between all those names.

Mr. Beith

The answers to the two questions are not necessarily the same. It does not follow that because a piece of literature refers to the candidature of both the parliamentary candidate and the local candidate and bears their names, that piece of literature cannot be accepted in the free post. It follows that the expense of producing that literature must be apportioned between the candidates, but it does not follow that it cannot be transmitted through the free post.

Mr. English

I think it does, because the free post relates only to parliamentary candidates. That is said somewhere in the legislation.

But, like all hon. Members who have contributed so far to this debate, I must express my gratitude to the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) for moving the new clause. I do not necessarily agree with it. I rather tend to agree with the Minister of State. However, the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed has raised a matter of the utmost substance which we must clear up.

May we have a clear answer from the Minister on two questions? First, in relation to almost any literature—but the election address is relevant to the new clause—if it is joint, has it to be divided by the number of candidates mentioned in terms of cost? Secondly, if it is joint, can it be included in the parliamentary free post? Those are the basic questions, and that is really all we want to know.

8.15 p.m.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon (York)

Any new idea always frightens the Home Office. However, I am not sure that the arguments against the new clause are wholly valid. There seems to be one argument that probably carries the day. But if two pieces of paper are put into an election envelope, in my view it cannot make any difference to the question of expenses. If one leaflet which goes into the election envelope names more than one candidate—the general election candidate and the local election candidate—no doubt there will have to be an apportionment of the expenses. But that is not what we are arguing about. We are arguing about whether it is desirable, on this one occasion when both elections are being held on the same day, to avoid all the trouble of distributing local election literature by putting it into an envelope which in any case will go out from the parties to each of the electors.

The argument against that, apparently, is that there is some disparity between the boundaries of a parliamentary district constituency and the boundaries of the local districts. But even if that is true—and it is not true in many cases, including that of York—this is a permissive power. It would allow the parliamentary candidate in each parliamentary constituency to take such number of notices for the local districts as were necessary for the representation in that local authority district. That could be done and would have to be done by the party machine. The party machine would write up the envelopes, and the party machine would fill them. If there was 50 per cent. of one ward in one parliamentary constituency and 50 per cent. in another, the party would divide up the allocation of literature between the different envelopes. That is a problem for the party, but it is not a problem for the Home Office and it certainly is not a problem for the Post Office.

As for the weight and the burden that would fall on postmen, there was a time when my richer Conservative opponent made a six-fold leaflet as distinct from the usual three-fold leaflet. If that sixfold leaflet were divided in two, that would represent the position being asked for by the new clause—it would be possible to put in two separate leaflets. The only real argument against it is that suggested by the Minister that acceptance of the amendment would mean that it would apply only to those parties which were nominating candidates for the general election as well as for the local elections and that in that sense it would discriminate against those who were candidates only in the local elections.

That can be overcome by allowing on this occasion the local government candidates to have a free election distribution and thereby give local government candidates the opportunity of distributing if they will.

I gather that it has been argued that that would be dangerous, partly because it sets a precedent. Precedents do not have to be followed. This is a wholly unusual situation. I do not suppose that the House would want to suggest that in future years we would want free distribution of all local government election material. That case has to be argued at any rate in the future. It does not preempt the possibility of our not following this precedent in the future. So I think that that is out of the way.

The second argument is that it would encourage splinter parties or small parties of which the House would disapprove, and the House does not have to question very long to find out which those might be. It is argued that acceptance of the new clause would tend to give them some encouragement by giving them the opportunity to distribute their literature. If that is the case, surely we have to recognise that the real problem is the cost of printing. The likelihood of a small party of this nature being able to print 50,000 leaflets at considerable expense seems to me to deter all but the major parties from doing it, and the likelihood is that the smaller party would not want to use the free distribution facility.

Mr. Max Madden (Sowerby)

Has my hon. Friend not overlooked another group? Would he not agree that if we were to adopt this suggestion, we could be faced with a number of commercial organisations which would see the opportunity of having commercial brochures and other commercial material circulated free through the post?

Mr. Lyon

I was coming to that matter. It was my next point. It is possible for Oxo to put up a candidate in my constituency at the general election and get a free distribution of Oxo advertising.

Mr. Rathbone

They might win.

Mr. Lyon

They would not. There is no one more virile in my constituency than myself. The suggestion that this is a real argument against the proposal overlooks the fact that the danger exists at a general election. If any major advertising firm wanted to carry out a wholesale free distribution, it would put up Mr. Bloggs as representing X soap powder and give a distribution. It has never happened in the past. I do not see why it should happen now. If it is a danger, it exists for a general election as well as for a local authority area.

The real problem seems only that the Liberal amendment does not encompass the case of the independent or small party which puts up a local authority candidate but does not put up a general election candidate. I accept that this is difficult and that it would be unfair to that candidate or that party. But we cannot say that we cannot therefore proceed.

We could frame an amendment in the other place, which would cover that position. The great advantage of this proposal is that a lot of party workers throughout the country would bless our name if they found that they could put the local authority address in the same envelope as that for the parliamentary constituency which has been written and is to be sent out.

Mr. Leslie Spriggs (St. Helens)

Will the Minister, before replying to the debate on the new clause, examine the metropolitan county areas, such as the St. Helens district council, which includes parts of six parliamentary constituencies, each with a separate Member of Parliament? Each will have a candidate at the next parliamentary election. How would the Minister overcome this, if he concedes what is asked in the new clause, without involving the other Members of Parliament, who could not very well list candidates of the Labour Party in their own literature, in view of the fact that such a mixed bag of us represent different parts of the metropolitan county area?

Mr. Beith

This debate has been important and useful. It has revealed that there is a lot of confusion on points related to this matter. It is an illustration that the House should never gallop through legislation under any circumstances without looking at individual clauses. I raise the matter not to delay the proceedings but because there is genuine confusion, on which hon. Members have enlarged. I would like to underline some points so that we can be sure that when the Minister, who I see wishes to speak, intervenes again, we can clear them up.

I would like to refer to the remarks of the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden). It could fairly be assumed from the debate that there is nothing to preclude a parliamentary candidate from saying on his election address "I want my supporters to vote also for the candidates of my party in the local elections". There is nothing to preclude his saying that.

Mr. Spriggs


Mr. Beith

Unspecified. Is there anything to preclude his going on to say "These candidates are Mr. Jones, Mr. Smith and Mr. So-on-So"? He could issue his address in editions to make sure that the right names appeared in each area. We must make certain what, if anything, precludes him from doing that. We have also to clarify whether that gives rise to issues of apportioning of election expenses. Even if it does, that does not indicate that the exercise cannot be carried out and that the Post Office would be obliged to refuse that literature. All that has been established by the Minister is that the law, as it stands, would not allow the Post Office to accept separate literature to be put into the same envelope and that this course would be precluded unless the amendment were carried. On those specific issues, we must have guidance.

I should like to mention a case where the problem would be even worse. The candidate for the parliamentary election might happen also to be a candidate in the local election. That situation is even more likely to arise because notices of election have already gone out for the district council elections and the process of nomination is under way. People have declared themselves in some areas. One thinks particularly of the candidate of a smaller party in a given constituency who perhaps does not expect to become the Member of Parliament but has high hopes of becoming a councillor in his ward and is standing at both levels, having originally expected the elections to be on different days. What is the position of that person if he says "I am your candidate for Parliament and also for the metropolitan district council"? Would the Post Office have to refuse his literature if he said that he was a candidate for the latter?

I appreciate the Minister's difficulty and do not criticise him for seeking advice from behind him as quickly as he can, but we must ensure that we do not let such a Bill go through, with the prospect of an election campaign already under way, without clearing up such matters.

The argument of disparity between parliamentary constituencies and district council boundaries is irrelevant, because where the disparity is considerable no party will wish to engage in this exercise, or it will have to be very highly organised if it is prepared to do so. That is a problem for the parties. No one is obliged to include separate pieces of election literature in his post. In a situation like that described by the hon. Member for St. Helens (Mr. Spriggs), no doubt the parties would not even attempt to do it.

The stronger argument is that of the Minister about the advantage conferred on parties and organisations fighting at both levels. That makes me not particularly keen to press the Government to concede the general point at stake, but we cannot let this issue rest or pass it to another place, assuming that it is completed in an unhappy state, without clearing up these difficulties.

Mr. John

The great difficulty here is that one is asked for an interpretation of the law, which in the final analysis only the courts can give. All that I can tell hon. Members is that section 79 of the Representation of the People Act, which is devoted to the free post, says that communications must relate to the parliamentary election only.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) said that the effect of the local government elections would be to inhibit his discharge of his parliamentary duties. In my opinion—it is not and could not be a legal ruling, and he would be unwise to treat it as such—that would permit him to make such a reference as he mentioned. However, if he promoted local government candidates, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) is right about the expenditure if for no other reason.

Mr. Ogden rose

Mr. John

I have been asked questions, but it seems that hon. Members are not willing to wait for replies before jumping in.

Not only is there that expense problem; the practice might fall foul of section 79.

As the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) knows, I do not take drafting points, but I tell my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Lyon) that it is a bit topsy-turvy to say "I know that it says that any candidate in a parliamentary election may include in the free post local government literature, but we can correct that to say that everybody has the right." That is the tail wagging the dog.

If we are to say that everyone in a local election should have free postal services, we should say so directly and in terms. That means that if a party or an individual does not have a counterpart standing in a parliamentary election he will fight that election under a grave disadvantage. Whatever else we do, we should try to ensure that those who want to stand for local election should do so on reasonably equal terms.

Secondly, it is by no means unknown—although we would all deny it of our own constituencies—that there are some councillors whose election literature a Member of Parliament would not wish to have in with his. That would discriminate against those people as opposed to all the other party candidates in the area.

I have dealt with the practicalities merely in an ascending scale, but for these reasons I could not recommend the Committee to accept the new clause.

Mr. Ogden

The Minister criticised me for trying to jump in before he had given the answer, but I do not think that I received an answer to my question. I am not sure from what he said whether the regulations and the law about the free post state that it must be for parliamentary purposes—

Mr. Beith


Mr. Ogden

—or for parliamentary purposes only. We need some interpretation. I am not asking the Minister to be the Lord Chief Justice or the Court of Appeal and give me an instant decision, but we shall be leaving this place to campaign in elections and we shall be stating many reasons why we want our constituents to give us their support. If we are to say that parliamentary candidates may not refer in their election literature to local government candidates, that amounts to censorship under the law. As a candidate in Liverpool, West Derby, I should need the support of particular people in the local council. This provision would be against that. There are all kinds of reasons within the law, apparently, why I can have the support of my constituents, but I must not say that I ask them to support a friend so that he can help me. Is that the situation?

Mr. English

No, I do not think that it is.

8.30 p.m.

The First Deputy Chairman

I am glad to see that the hon. Gentleman has been promoted to ministerial rank. I take it he will give the answer to the question.

Mr. English

I was the only person standing, Sir Myer, and it is—

The First Deputy Chairman

The question was posed to the Minister, not to the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English).

Mr. English

On a point of order, Mr. Chairman. I was the only person on his feet and it is the Committee stage. The closure has not yet been moved. If my hon. Friend the Minister wishes to answer two points at the same time, would it not be convenient for the Committee for that to happen?

The First Deputy Chairman

Yes, but I understood that the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden), who posed the question, was waiting for an answer from the Minister and would then resume his speech. He has a long way to go yet.

Mr. Ogden

On a point of order, Mr. Chairman. With respect, I am not waiting to resume. I have an election campaign to conduct. I do not know what everyone else around here is doing—that is up to him. I want answers.

The First Deputy Chairman

The hon. Gentleman seems to have started his election campaign here this evening.

Mr. English

As I understand it, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden), got it only half right. Nobody has said that an hon. Member cannot issue a piece of literature with his own name and the names of his candidates on it. All that has been said so far is that if he does so he must divide the cost of printing that piece of literature between the candidates who are named therein. If my hon. Friend the Member for West Derby wants to send that literature to anybody, he must not use the free parliamentary post but put a stamp on it or have it delivered by hand. That is all that has been said. If he wants to use the free parliamentary post, as I understand it my hon. Friend the Minister said that the section of the Act stipulates that it must be for himself only. Surely that is very simple. If my hon. Friend the Member for West Derby wishes to do what he obviously does wish to do, he must not use the free parliamentary post. He may use the free parliamentary post only for himself.

Mr. John

Though inadequate, I shall try to help my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) by quoting what, after all, guides all our actions, an Act of Parliament. If my hon. Friend the Member for West Derby wants certainty, he must test the matter in the courts. While not volunteering to assist him, I think that many of my colleagues would rub their hands at the prospect of my hon. Friend doing that. Section 79(1) is as follows: A candidate at a parliamentary election shall, subject to regulations … send … one postal communication containing matter relating to the election only. … In other words, my hon. Friend can certainly say that, as regards his parliamentary election literature, the existence of a local authority inimical to him is a handicap, but he cannot promote the candidature of unnamed people on that list. That is the best I can do for my hon. Friend, short of the Court of Appeal or the House of Lords ruling definitively.

Mr. Beith

I can understand the reluctance of the Minister of State to assume a role which is not that of Parliament—namely, interpreting the law. However, we are actually making the law tonight. We are creating an unprecedented situation in which district council elections and parliamentary elections are to take place on the same day. We are making rules for that. That calls for rules on matters which have hitherto not required rules, and it calls into question the interpretation of rules which have sufficed in previous elections.

The Minister has correctly pointed to the likely way in which some of these matters might be interpreted. If there is a very considerable element of doubt we may have to do something about it, either at this stage or subsequent stages of the passage of the Bill.

I put to the Minister the one specific unanswered point arising from what I said earlier, which is the position of the candidate who is a candidate in both elections and who, for example, in the biographical part of his election address has the words printed "I am also" or "Mr. so-and-so is also" a candidate in the district council elections for the area. These words require the Post Office to veto this communication for inclusion in the free post. That situation does not normally arise and it was not envisaged when we made the law in its present form. It is a situation that is bound to arise at some point in the circumstances we now face.

Mr. John

Two points arise. Section 79(1) is fairly clear. The candidate at a parliamentary election shall send one postal communication … relating to the election only". The wording of the Act would seem to rule out the second point that the hon. Member makes.

On his first point, although the coincidence of parliamentary and district council elections is unprecedented, there have been occasions when the general election and a local government by-election have taken place at the same time. The problem was perfectly well coped with then, and if it was then, I am sure that it will be now.

Mr. English

Will my hon. Friend answer a further question? Does he agree that if a piece of literature mentions two or three names, the cost of it should be apportioned between them?

Mr. John

I keep on saying that.

Question put and negatived.