HC Deb 20 January 1999 vol 323 cc933-43
Mr. Ottaway

I beg to move amendment No. 5, in page 3, leave out lines 2 to 6.

The Second Deputy Chairman

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 31, in page 3, line 2, leave out from 'on' to end of line 3 and insert 'the first Thursday in May in the year following the Royal Assent of this Act'. No. 77, in page 3, leave out lines 4 to 6.

No. 67, in page 3, line 6, at end insert— ', such a poll not to take place more than four years after the previous election.'. No. 6, in page 3, line 7, after '(3)', insert— 'The poll of the first ordinary election shall be held on 4th May 2000 and'. No. 78, in page 3, line 10, leave out from beginning to 'subject' and insert 'Subsection (3) above is'.

Mr. Ottaway

I shall speak to amendments Nos. 5, 6 and 67. For the sake of convenience, I shall deal first with amendment No. 6, which would provide that the date of the first election is stated in the Bill. We believe that strongly.

5 pm

The Minister and his boss have proudly proclaimed that the first election will take place on 4 May 2000. I know that they are holding back a lot—not only reserve powers, but announcements to be made in orders—but that is one date that they do not have to hold back, because they have already announced it. We believe that the date should be in the Bill, if only to give some sense to amendments Nos. 5 and 67.

Amendment No. 5 addresses the point that the Secretary of State has reserve powers to announce when the second and third ordinary elections will take place. The Conservative party is deeply suspicious that that is not wholly unconnected with the declared intention in the local government White Paper to move the London boroughs to annual, or perhaps biennial, elections.

The Conservative party is happy with the present timetable for London elections—there is no need to fiddle with the dates—and we are happy for elections to take place once every four years. The Government want to move the dates of the London borough elections to try to increase turnout—that is a good intention—but there is absolutely no evidence that annual elections increase turnout. All the signs are that it makes no difference.

For one reason or another, elections regularly take place in May and missing the odd year does not seem to make much difference. The public will turn out if they want to, regardless of whether elections are annual or every four years.

Amendment No. 67 provides that, if we are unsuccessful with amendments Nos. 5 and 6 and the Secretary of State retains the power to hold the elections at his discretion, under any circumstance the term for the new authority should be not more than four years. A five or six-year term would not be acceptable.

There could be indefinite suspension of elections under the Bill. Although I do not believe for a moment that that is in the Government's mind, it would be safer, for clarity's sake, to confirm that no term could be more than four years. I hope that the Minister will give serious consideration to the amendments.

Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

I shall speak to amendments Nos. 31, 77 and 78.

I am surprised that the Government have made it necessary for the Liberal Democrats and the official Opposition to table amendments on the timing of the elections. All hon. Members are agreed that there will be an election for the Greater London authority, but the date on which it will be held is missing from the Bill—unless we count the powers of the Secretary of State, who has infiltrated every nook and cranny of the Bill, to select a date of his choosing. Those powers also apply to second and third elections.

That leaves the process open to gerrymandering. We are considering the use of independent commissions to establish electoral structures and dates for elections, and the Government should consider that in this case. We need a clear steer on when the election will be held. We recognise that unforeseen circumstances may preclude putting a specific date in the Bill, but it most certainly should not be within the power of the Secretary of State to decide whether the election takes place at all. I should be grateful if the Minister responded to that point. What happens if, before the elections to the GLA are held, the Government change and the new Secretary of State is not favourable towards the establishment of a GLA? Will the Bill allow the Secretary of State to decide never to hold elections?

I hope that the Government agree that this serious point requires consideration and that our concerns are valid. I look forward to a constructive response from the Minister.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

I very much welcome the two amendments in the name of my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway). The amendments make an extremely important point—they show that the Government's attitude towards democratic elections is that they can be moveable feasts at the behest of the Secretary of State's diktat. That is not how the electorate want electoral dates to be set. The first election for the Greater London authority should be clearly stated in the Bill so that there is no possibility whatever of malpractice by the Government.

If the Government cannot impose a candidate who is acceptable to the Labour party leadership within the allotted time, they might wish to postpone the first election. If they decide that the election campaign has not been sufficiently well prepared, or if other extraneous circumstances that we cannot anticipate occur, the Government might change the date of the first election. Many are the occasions on which a date quoted in Hansard has, for various reasons, not been upheld, which is why my right hon. and hon. Friends are correct to insist in amendment No. 6 that the first date should be in the Bill—as, too, does the Liberal Democrat party in its amendments.

The election to the Greater London authority should not be affected by notional plans for the reform of local government in London. Let us at least get the format for the GLA right and the timetable for elections established in an immutable way, with which the Secretary of State cannot interfere, before we start to reform local government. The electorate wants the first elections to take place, as we have been promised, on 4 May 2000 and the second and third elections to take place four years thereafter. The Bill should not empower the Secretary of State to change the anticipated dates of those elections.

I hope that the House will be rigorous in imposing its view on this matter, because once we allow the timing of the elections to be subject to the Secretary of State's discretion, the matter is likely to become party political rather than constitutional. We must safeguard the democratic interests of Londoners.

Mr. Edward Davey

I had not intended to speak in this debate, but the comments of the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) have tempted me to do so. He raised an important point, which the House should consider: why are the Government not prepared to state in the Bill the date of the first elections? The Minister must answer that question if he is to convince the Committee. The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood said that it may be because of the internal machinations of the London Labour party, which has only just managed to agree on the selection process for its candidates. Those may be subject to review—we shall have to wait and see.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

As the hon. Gentleman is so concerned about the selection process, can he tell me who the Liberal Democrat candidate will be?

Mr. Davey

Details of our selection process have been published, and we are now approving candidates. There have been no internal squabbles in our party about the process. It is open and above board and follows democratic procedures. If the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) wants to intervene, I am sure that he can explain that his party's selection process is also democratic and open.

Mr. Ottaway

The hon. Gentleman tempts me. Apparently, the leader of the Liberal Democrat party is at this moment resigning from office. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could enlighten us on the method of election for that post.

Mr. Davey

I have no knowledge of that. If it were true, any election would be open and democratic, as for many years we have been the only British political party to have a one member, one vote system for the election of our leader. I am glad that the Conservative party is modernising itself. It is about time, because for years it has been the most undemocratic party in Britain.

We have not had a good explanation of why the Government are not prepared to put the date of the election in the Bill. That may be because of the internal problems of the Labour party or because they are worried about the passage of the legislation. They may be worried about their opinion poll ratings in May 2000. Perhaps they want to leave it as late in the day as possible so that they can be sure of winning. Only time will tell, but Ministers should have more confidence and should be prepared to include the date in the Bill.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Will the hon. Gentleman explain to the House his apparent total lack of concern about the news that he has just been given that his party leader has resigned?

The Second Deputy Chairman

Order. We should return to the amendment that is before the House.

Mr. Davey

I am tempted to answer that question, but under your direction, Mr. Lord, I shall not. At least our leader has given brilliant leadership to his party, unlike the right hon. Gentleman's leader.

The Government should, consistent with the Nolan recommendations, refer the date and the process of elections to an independent election commission. Having accepted the recommendations of the Nolan committee, one would have thought that the Government would implement them. There should be more transparency, certainty and stability in the management and organisation of elections. When the Government were in opposition they railed against secondary legislation and such decisions being taken by orders, but now they are in government they are changing their mind.

I support the arguments put by my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake). I hope that the House will force the Government to put the date of the election in the Bill.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

I rise to speak about the date of the first election of the mayor and the assembly. I do not know what the Government are up to with regard to the second and third elections, and as I am a bear of very little brain, I see no point in trying to unravel what they are attempting to do in the second and third elections until we know what they are doing in the first. As the Chinese say, "On long journey, first step most important." I would feel much firmer on the ground under my feet if I knew what the Government were doing.

Uncharacteristically, I have a certain suspicion of the Government: I am not normally prone to such scepticism. Whenever we discuss dates with the present Administration, there is always a degree of fluidity as to when things are going to happen. That certainly applies to recesses. We still do not know whether we shall go into recess for the half-term holidays, although we are hearing noises about how difficult that would be.

I do not know whether the Government's uncertainty on these matters is dictated by—[Interruption.] I do not have the total attention of my Front-Bench colleagues, but Labour Members are listening to me attentively, and they are, of course, my most important audience. I do not know whether the Government's inability to give us firm dates is a function of profound incompetence or immensely sophisticated psychological warfare. Ultimately, I do not mind, but it means that we have to press to get the date.

5.15 pm

We were originally told that the elections would be in May 2000. There then crept into the public prints a story—which may not have had validity, but it sounded as though it came from someone who knew—that the Prime Minister was extremely anxious to have the mayor beside him in the dome on 31 December 1999, and that he really could not see in the new millennium without the mayor. I think that I could manage to do so, but it was said that it was important to the Prime Minister that this experience should be shared. When the story disappeared from our screens, I suspected that officials had been quietly briefing that there was no way in which the elections could be ready by autumn 1999, and that this was a foolish ambition on the part of the Administration.

It would be profoundly helpful if, at this stage, we could be definitively told—as I thought the Deputy Prime Minister had done in an off-the-cuff remark some time ago—that the elections will be in May 2000. As the Bellman said in "The Hunting of the Snark": What I tell you three times is true. I look forward to the third time we are given the date of May 2000—I hope that that is what the Minister will tell us.

I look forward to that for another reason, which relates to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) in Committee yesterday. He was temporarily incorrect in saying that the Conservative party had never won an election for the London county council. Those present will remember that, as soon as I half rose, he immediately corrected himself and agreed that it had won.

In correspondence with the Minister, I have discussed the LCC election of 1949, when the Conservative party won as many seats as the Labour party, which represented a major swing to the Conservatives. The one Liberal who was elected said that he would vote with the Conservative party. The Labour party used a stratagem to ensure that it retained power, but I shall not go into that, because you would rule me out of order, Mr. Lord.

I do not resent the fact that the Conservative party got 120,000 more votes in London that day and yet did not win the election. I would not regard that as an argument for proportional representation, and I was happy to vote against all the Liberal Democrat propositions on PR yesterday, because it did not affect me. Such experiences concentrate one's mind on the small print when dealing with the Labour party in matters of Greater London. That is why I hope that we shall be given a date.

I do not think that that is an unreasonable request. We may have mutual doubts about the quality of the legislation before us. A learned lady—I think her name was Mrs. Hunt—once said that the entire administration of the Roman empire could be derived from the construction ut with the subjunctive. I do not have the same sense of total coherence and cohesiveness in this legislation, and it is not unreasonable for Opposition Members to ask to know the date of the first election. It may even make us more enthusiastic about the legislation than we have so far been.

Mrs. Lait

I endorse the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), although I would not go quite so far as he does in his two thoughts as to why no date has been given for the first election. I shall be charitable and say that it is an oversight.

Mr. Raynsford

indicated dissent.

Mrs. Lait

No, it is not. Clearly, some of the more Machiavellian theories are true. The Conservative party and the Liberal Democrat party are in the process of selecting their candidates for mayor in a clear and open way, whereas the Labour party is using this issue as a face-saving device to hide the chaos it is in.

We are clearly not going to get any satisfaction on this issue, but it is always worth a try. Certainly, Conservative Members will be very unhappy if no clear statement about the date is made in the Bill. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster pointed out, specifying a date would be quite an enticement to people to take an interest. Despite the Government's claim that there is great interest in London, we are not finding that people are desperate to vote for a London assembly. Having a date for the first election might help to provide democratic legitimacy.

I share the reservations expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) about the failure to inform us of when the second and third elections might take place. I am deeply suspicious about that: I suspect that the Government may wish to hold annual elections in London. In a previous existence, I represented two local authorities, one of which held annual elections and the other four-yearly elections. I agree with those who have said that it makes no difference: the turnout is the same. What is clear is that a small proportion of people are prepared to go out and do their democratic duty in all circumstances and at all times.

Mr. Wilkinson

I, too, have experience of both systems. Does my hon. Friend agree that four-yearly rather than annual elections would increase the likelihood of a large swing? Such an arrangement gives local authorities time in which to get on and govern, and also gives the electorate time to make up their minds on the basis of balanced judgments.

Mrs. Lait

I certainly think that it takes much longer to change the control of any authority when there are annual elections. The problem is that, in such circumstances, authorities often end up with no overall control. The effect is, dare I say, similar to the effect of any form of proportional representation. No decisions are made; any decisions that are cobbled together are cobbled together behind closed doors, and no one who voted for any of the councillors concerned knows what policy will eventually be adopted. In fact, annual elections have two drawbacks, one of which is that they represent an unsatisfactory and unofficial form of proportional representation.

Not only do we need clarification of the second and third dates; as the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) pointed out, there is a possibility of Machiavellian gerrymandering beyond a four-year term. At the least, we need an assurance that elections will take place within a four-year period. I am sure that none of us would find a longer period satisfactory.

Mr. Forth

I am not as charitable as my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait). I suspect that there is something profoundly unsatisfactory—indeed, probably something sinister—about the Bill's present wording. I say that for an obvious reason. When it comes to a question as vital as elections and the timing of elections, surely the electorate—not to say MPs—are entitled to know at this stage where we stand, what we are being asked to approve and where we go from here.

As so often, the Bill says that all these matters will be determined by the Secretary of State. That in itself is profoundly unsatisfactory. We know the way in which the Government tend to make decisions: they make them on the basis of focus groups or opinion polls. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) was, I think, the first to point out, there is every possibility that the Government are trying to give themselves electoral manoeuvring space to ensure that the timing of the elections is arranged in the most favourable way according to what they are being told, or think they are being told, by the current focus groups or opinion polls.

That takes us back—although you will be pleased to learn, Mr. Lord, that I do not intend to rehearse the arguments—into the territory of referendums, and what I consider to be their invalidity, in the sense that the timing of a question is crucial to receiving the desired answer. We are, I think, entitled to suspect that is what the Government are after now: that they want to be able to time elections, whether the first or subsequent elections, on the basis of what they believe will be most favourable to them. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us credible assurances that will not and cannot be the case.

That leads us to the question—also identified by my hon. Friends—of the relative merits of yearly and four-yearly elections. I have two problems with the idea of annual elections, one being the simple problem of cost. There will be a serious cost penalty if we have to crank up the election machine every year and expect the taxpayer and voter to pay. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham said, there is no evidence that annual elections will produce greater enthusiasm and participation; indeed, the opposite may well be the case. Until my hon. Friend put us right, I would have said that, if anything, the turnout for annual elections would be lower than that for four-yearly ones.

Another factor is continuity and stability of administration. Annual elections for any elected body mean the possibility, if not the probability, that control will change annually, preventing continuity or policy and producing what may well be a chaotic arrangement. That can be seen now in hung councils. Frequent control changes, as we all know, are a prescription for inadequate administration and inadequate policies.

Mr. Brake

Is the right hon. Gentleman honestly saying that every hung council that includes Conservative councillors is being run incompetently, and that those councillors are making no decisions?

Mr. Forth

No. I am saying that too many decisions are being made, and that they are often inconsistent and lacking in continuity of purpose. I accept that decisions must be made; I even accept, however reluctantly, that if the verdict of the voters is that there shall be no overall control, something must be done about that. My point is that returning to the electorate every year at least invites the possibility that they will alter the disposition of the council, and that there will be different arrangements, different coalitions and different control. That cannot be good for local administration.

The Minister has an obligation to tell us what arrangements the Government believe should be in the Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) said, those arrangements should preferably be stated in the Bill. The Minister may argue that is not entirely reasonable—that it would be rash to name a date before the Bill has completed its stages and been given Royal Assent—but I feel that he should at least tell us the reasoning behind the Government's proposals, and reassure us that none of the unease expressed by Conservative Members is well founded. I hope that he can assure us, and the people of London, that everything will be done properly, and will be above board.

Mr. Raynsford

This has been a remarkable debate. It has been characterised by paranoia, and by astonishing suspicion about the Government's intentions. We have been accused of sinister behaviour by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), and of anti-democratic behaviour by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson). Before the hon. Gentleman makes further accusations of anti-democratic behaviour, he should reflect on the fact that it was his party that took from the people of London the right to vote for their own citywide authority.

We have heard paranoia from some Members who are prone to such tendencies: the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst probably fits into that category. I fear that the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) is moving in that direction, but we also heard it from other Members of normally more sound and mature judgment: the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) and the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait).

I have to be charitable and assume that Members have been distracted. In the case of the Liberal Democrats, clearly, the news that their party leader is resigning has had slightly destabilising implications. I assume that, because the fear of losing members of one's party also has a destabilising effect, the loss of various Conservative Members of the European Parliament has probably also had a destabilising impact on Conservative Members. In charity, I will allow that interpretation.

5.30 pm
Mr. Edward Davey

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Raynsford

I will in a moment, but I have first to disappoint all the right hon. and hon. Members who have had paranoid delusions about our intentions. Let me explain why the date of the election is not in the Bill. The explanation is simple.

As hon. Members will recall, the Bill was published on 3 December. The date for the first election for the Greater London authority was only announced by the Deputy Prime Minister on Second Reading of the Bill on 14 December, so it was simply not possible for the date to appear in the Bill.

The position has now changed. As I have already made clear, we are a listening Government and are only too happy to accommodate reasonable amendments, even from other parties, if we believe that there is justice behind them. In that spirit, I am happy to assure hon. Members that we are happy to accommodate their wishes. The date is now known and it is possible to incorporate a date in the Bill. Therefore, I am happy to consider amendment No. 6.

I have to make one caveat. Because we have to have provision against the possibility of a national disaster, or an event that makes it impossible to hold the election on that date, there must be a consequential amendment that allows flexibility against such circumstances. [Interruption.] I can assure hon. Members that the resignation of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst would not be a national disaster and would certainly not require the postponement of elections to the Greater London authority.

Subject to that one caveat, we will be happy to consider the amendment and come forward with a further amendment that puts the intended election date in the Bill. We ask Opposition Members, for reasons that I will explain, to agree that the amendments that would remove the Secretary of State's power to make an order setting the dates on which the second and third ordinary elections would be held should be withdrawn. I would be happy to discuss with the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) between now and Report the form that those consequential amendments should take.

We do not seek that flexibility because we have a sinister and secret agenda to amend the dates of the first and subsequent elections for political advantage. We are as anxious as everyone else that the GLA should be elected at the earliest practicable date, but, for the practical reasons to which I have referred, the dates cannot become immutable. We must be able to respond to unforeseen circumstances that might make the postponement of the election unavoidable.

Conservative Members' protestations would have been more convincing if the legislation that they introduced to set up the Greater London council in the first place—the London Government Act 1963—and, indeed, the Local Government Act 1972, had provided for the first ordinary elections to counties and districts to be fixed not by statute, but by the Secretary of State. Therefore, their record in government was not blameless.

Having said that, we intend to ensure that there will normally be a period of no more than four years between elections, but we need to allow an element of flexibility, not least because of the possibility of further primary legislation being introduced in relation to the dates on which London borough elections will be held. For that reason, we believe that it is necessary to retain clause 3(2), which enables the dates of the second and third elections to be moved if that becomes necessary.

In the light of the commitment that I have given to consider amendment No. 6, I hope that the hon. Members for Croydon, South and for Carshalton and Wallington will now agree to withdraw their amendments.

Mr. Brake

I have listened carefully to what the Minister has said. I hope that he noted that the Liberal Democrats were very calm and collected throughout the debate, regardless of what was happening elsewhere.

The Minister has made a major concession and I am happy not to press my amendments.

Mr. Brooke

I have not been specifically provoked by the Minister, but I could see that my father's role in the 1963 legislation was going to play a part in our proceedings. On behalf of the spirit of my late noble father, I will say that there was a long gap between Second Reading in 1962 and the election in 1965—a longer gap than that which prevails between today's debate and the date of the first election, so the then Government can be excused for not having set the date.

It is rare that any speech of mine or of my colleagues produces so immediate a concession and favourable response from the Government. I am grateful to them. However, I note that the explanation as to why the date was not in the Bill was that 11 days passed between publication of the Bill and Second Reading. The Government were unable to make up their mind by 3 December, but were able to make up their mind by 14 December, or whatever the date was.

The spirit of my noble father draws the Prince of Denmark briefly into the debate. I was Under-Secretary to Sir Keith Joseph, that great man. The job of Under-Secretary to that great man, who spent an enormous amount of time pacing the battlements of Elsinore, was occasionally to dart from a turret, tug him by the sleeve and say, "Secretary of State, the time has come to make a decision." I had not previously thought of the Deputy Prime Minister as suffering from the same degree of indecisiveness. Indeed, in physical terms, if I were to put them together in the same frame, I would have cast the Deputy Prime Minister in the role of Sancho Panza and the late Sir Keith in the capacity of Don Quixote. Why the Government could not make up their mind by publication of the Bill on 3 December remains a major mystery.

Mr. Wilkinson

I am afraid that I cannot match the invocation by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) of noble shades or ancestry, or even match his literary allusions. However, I should like to probe the Minister more on one particular adverb: normally.

The Minister said that the second and third election dates could be affected by changes, notional at this stage, in the timetable for the elections for the London borough councils. Should not the election of the mayor and assembly of the Greater London authority have primacy? Should we not set a fixed timetable of a four-year term starting from 2000? Why do we need to change the second and third election dates?

If we are going to change the term, the Minister suggests that it might be extended. Might Londoners not want it to be curtailed, rather than extended? Therefore, I insist again that it is not correct to give the Secretary of State power to alter the dates of the second and third elections on the basis of what remains a hypothetical possibility: changes to the timetable for London borough elections, which Parliament has not yet approved.

Mr. Ottaway

I should like to say how much I appreciated the speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke). As we still have some 274 clauses to go and he is on the Committee, perhaps we might get one or two more speeches such as that from him.

The Minister has made a generous concession. I would not say that we are entirely happy with his reaction to the two amendments, but, under the circumstances, we think that his approach to the clause is right. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Back to
Forward to