HC Deb 21 January 1998 vol 304 cc1058-62
Mr. Wigley

I beg to move amendment No. 167, in page 2, line 18, at end insert 'but that day shall not coincide with a day designated for holding elections to local authorities in Wales'.'

The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael Lord)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 168, in page 2, line 20, leave out 'May' and insert 'October.'.

No. 183, in page 2, line 20, leave out 'May in the fourth' and insert 'April in the fifth'.

No. 51A, in page 2, leave out lines 22 to 26.

No. 24A, in page 2, line 22, leave out 'Secretary of State' and insert 'Assembly'.

No. 58A, in page 2, line 27, after first 'the', insert 'first'.

No. 59A, in page 2, line 28, leave out 'community'.

No. 25A, in page 2, line 28, after 'State', insert 'or Assembly as the case may be'. No. 2A, in page 2, line 29, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

No. 60A, in page 2, line 29, at end insert— '() for the polls at ordinary elections of county or county borough councillors to be postponed, for not more than thirteen months, to a day specified in the order,'. No. 184, in page 2, line 30, leave out 'community'. No. 61, in page 2, line 33, leave out first 'the' and insert 'any'. No. 169, in page 2, line 36, at end insert— '(5) Orders under subsections (3) and (4) shall be made by the Assembly in respect of elections subsequent to the first ordinary election.'.

Mr. Rogers


Mr. Wigley

I shall try to ignore that embellishment from the hon. Gentleman, who suggests that the amendment should have been moved formally. I think that he needs to hear some gog eloquence from me to be persuaded of the merits of the amendments.

My party has an interest in amendment No. 59A, tabled by mostly Liberal Members. We also support amendments Nos. 184 and 169, as well as amendments Nos. 168 and 183.

The aim of the amendments is to avoid holding elections for the assembly on the same day as the county or community elections. We believe that there are pressing reasons for that to be done, and four viewpoints support our view. First, there is the viewpoint of the electors. There is a real danger of confusion between the two campaigns. There will be campaigns for elections to the Welsh county councils in 22 counties—elections that are very important, in which local issues are at stake.

The Government have said time after time that the assembly is not meant to be seen as an extension of local government, but there will inevitably be a danger of its being seen in that way if the two campaigns are taking place at the same time. There will be a danger of confusion between the issues. Voting hours may also be a problem. Will the voting hours for the assembly be the same as those that normally apply in parliamentary elections—between 7 am and 10 pm—or will they be between 8 am and 9 pm? Electors may also be drowned in campaigning literature. How many candidates will there be? There will be the list candidates for the region, the direct assembly candidates and local government candidates, all of whom will be putting their literature through the electors' letter boxes. Will the assembly candidates' literature be sent by Freepost? Presumably, the local government candidates' literature will not. Such issues are bound to arise.

Electors will also have to sort out the 40:20 system—the added-member system. The danger is that, with all those elections taking place at the same time, they will vote with their backsides and stay at home. How will the postal vote rules operate? Will they be identical with the local government rules? If not, that will cause additional difficulties.

Secondly, there are problems from the viewpoint of the candidates. Particularly on this first occasion, some younger councillors in all parties may want to stand for the assembly, possibly in less hopeful areas. They may want to be on the Labour party list, and the chances of gaining a place on that list may be restricted. There may be Plaid Cymru candidates or, even worse, Conservative candidates, whose chances of securing a seat will be more remote. Those candidates will, however, want to put down a marker for the future.

If those people are to stand for the assembly, it will be almost impossible for them to remain candidates for local government. They cannot present themselves to the electorate saying that they will serve on both bodies. Membership of both would be incompatible, and such candidates will find themselves under pressure. In such circumstances, candidates would be in an impossible position. They would have to give up their council seats just in order to stand for the assembly, with, perhaps, no great chance of being elected. That will restrict the number of good candidates coming forward.

Mr. Shepherd

I am genuinely confused. I had assumed that the purpose of choosing local government election day was to secure a larger turnout, thus validating the assembly elections. There was a 25 per cent. yes vote—on a very low turnout—in the national referendum vote. I thought that choosing local government election day might induce more people to vote, because they were voting for something that mattered.

Mr. Wigley

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, in a Liverpool council election just before Christmas, there was a 6 per cent. turnout? That makes our 50 per cent. turnout look very respectable.

Mr. Rogers

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Wigley

But of course. How could I resist the hon. Gentleman?

Mr. Rogers

The evidence in Wales is quite the opposite. In 1979, when the parliamentary elections were held on the same day as the local elections, there was a huge turnout, and the voters were not at all confused.

What the right hon. Gentleman said a few minutes ago brought home to me the reason for the amendments. In many areas, Plaid Cymru will probably not be able to find enough candidates.

Mr. Wigley

I am happy to disabuse the hon. Gentleman immediately. We have started opening our list for those who are interested in being candidates. In the first two weeks, there were 160 names on it. We have no difficulty in that direction, whatever little local problems the hon. Gentleman may have in the Rhondda valley.

Thirdly, there is the viewpoint of the political parties. How can we ensure that the manifestos that address local issues—and may be produced within the county areas—and the manifestos relevant to the assembly are differentiated between, and are presented in a way that is clear to the electorate? There is a danger that the electorate may confuse what is being said about one issue with what is being said about the other. How will parties ensure that expenditure on the two campaigns is kept separate? If there are to be party political broadcasts, it will be difficult to get the balance right.

Fourthly, there is the viewpoint of the organisation of the elections by the returning officers and local government officers. Considerable difficulties could arise. Presumably, there will be different ballot boxes for the local government and the assembly votes, so there is a real danger of the wrong votes going into the wrong boxes; or, if they are all to be put into one box, what will be the position of voters in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), where the local election results are relevant to Gwynedd or Conwy councils, the assembly constituency includes both Conwy and Gwynedd, and the added member regional vote is relevant to a seat that runs all the way down to south Pembroke and Llanelli? There will be immense confusion in trying to disaggregate the votes.

That is a real problem. Those who are responsible for running elections have approached me, expressing that worry and beseeching the Government to reconsider.

Mr. Ancram

There is a simple solution: to have different coloured ballot papers. It has happened in other elections, and most people can differentiate between the colours and know which colour should go into which box.

Mr. Wigley

I am not sure whether the right hon. Gentleman followed what I was saying about Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, which will come under at least three authorities. There will have to be immense sorting out of votes before they can start to be counted and sent in different directions. When he examines the circumstances in such areas, he will find that there is much more of a problem than he thinks.

Those points were made to me not in any political sense, but by returning officers who foresee considerable difficulties. It will be especially difficult in the first round of elections to the assembly, in which we will have the additional strain of differentiating between the single seats and the regional lists; so that first round should be held on a different day from the local government elections.

For those reasons, I ask Ministers to consider the issue seriously between now and Report. They may not accept the amendments at this point, but it is a serious issue, as confusion may arise in the counting of the votes. The confusion that we are building into the system could make the little local difficulty that we had in the referendum seem small beer indeed.

Mr. Livsey

The amendments that we tabled, starting with No. 58A, are designed to delay the county council elections for 13 months and to synchronise the timing from that point, to avoid the clash of elections for the assembly and the county council.

Mr. Ancram

We believe that fixed-term parliaments should have a fixed term. Our amendments relate to the Secretary of State's power to vary the term, which is contrary to the spirit of a fixed term. I hope that the Government will reconsider.

Mr. Win Griffiths

We are well aware of the fact that, in the late spring or early summer of 1999, many people in Wales will be asked to participate in four different sets of elections: the first elections to the assembly; the county and county borough elections; community council elections; and the European Parliament elections.

We are aware of the practical difficulties, many of which the right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) mentioned, but we do not think that voters, electoral administrators or the political parties would be enthusiastic if we were to stage those important elections on three or four separate days in a short space of time; nor do we think it right to postpone elections for 13 months, because the local government elections were geared to a four-year period and they should continue on that basis.

6.45 pm

We believe that it would be more sensible and practical for some elections to be held together. If, for example, under existing arrangements, the assembly elections were to be held on the same day as the county and county borough elections, they would coincide with the community council elections, so we could have two sets of elections on two separate days. We believe that the appropriate way to do that is for the first elections to the assembly to be on 6 May, along with the county and county borough elections.

There are practical difficulties, and we will work on them, but we have to remember that in 1979 the two elections ran on the same day with no reported difficulties. On this occasion, we must also take into account the additional Members, and we are working on that.

Amendments Nos. 24A and 169 would allow for different ways of approaching orders under subsections (3) and (4) once the assembly is established. We do not believe that that is right. The amendments should be set aside.

Amendment No. 51 would permanently set the date of elections. We believe that there must be flexibility. We see no purpose in amendment No. 61A, and we believe that amendment No. 25 would cause confusion by allowing either the Secretary of State or the assembly to decide on the date of elections.

We want to re-examine amendments Nos. 24A and 169, and we ask that they not be pressed. We oppose all the other amendments and invite the Committee to reject them.

Mr. Wigley

I am grateful to the Minister for being willing to consider amendment No. 169. I hope that the Government will be willing to give the assembly the power to decide, when it is up and running. I should be grateful for any move in that direction. I urge the Minister, none the less, to hold consultations, between now and Report, with returning officers in Wales, so that all their observations can be taken on board. If he finds that there is some substance in the worries that I have expressed, especially from the organisational point of view, the Government can make the necessary amendments here or in the House of Lords. On that basis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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