§ Question again proposed, That the Bill be read a Second time.7.44 pm
§ Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)
I shall detain the House but briefly.
Inside the House, we are not supposed to be uncertain about things, but I was one of the Members who was genuinely uncertain about whether it was necessary to move the election date. I was not persuaded that foot and mouth was the greatest crisis that this country had experienced since the second world war and that this extraordinary action was therefore required, but at the same time I was impressed with the way in which the Prime Minister clearly felt that it was right—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) laughs, but it is a serious consideration. The Prime Minister felt that it was right to respect sensitivities and to do something that he was not inclined to do. That should be respected.
If the Opposition—they have now provoked me—could make such decisions, they would be introducing the Elections (Indefinite Postponement) Bill. That would be the short title: the long title would say, "Until we have a new leader, new policies and some more support". We know where they are coming from, but the Government have taken an extraordinary decision.
My only reservation about the Bill and the proposed postponement is that I am not sure that it is the job of politicians to decide when elections should be held. It is a fairly fundamental point, and it is what we are being asked to do now. We are being asked to do so because there is a joker in the pack, which is that there has to be a general election on the day of the local elections. I say "has to": there is going to be one. [Interruption.] If that comes as a revelation to hon. Members, I should tell them that there will be a general election on 7 June. 406 [Interruption.] We will see what happens. Opposition Members will see whether they are right, or whether I am right.
§ Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire)
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that, as a matter of law, there does not have to be a general election until 3 June 2002?
§ Tony Wright
Indeed. Many voters believe that they are voting for five-year Parliaments, but the average length of a Parliament since the second world war is three years and seven months, so four years has come to be the rough working average. That fact guides all our assumptions. The joker in the pack, if we are honest with ourselves, is the fact that there has to be, or it is believed that there has to be, a general election on the same day as the local elections, and that there is to be a general election on 7 June. All those things have to be put in the pot, and as a result local elections are being postponed to the date of the general election. That is the fundamental point.
§ Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)
Does the hon. Gentleman at least accept that, as a common-sense proposition, it would have made sense, once it began to be mooted that the local elections might have to be shifted, to prepare a contingency Bill or set of regulations? Equally, does he not think that it makes sense for the Government to build flexibility into the Bill in case his absolute assurances about 7 June prove not to be practical?
§ Tony Wright
I have a slightly different approach. I understand the hon. Gentleman's approach, but my approach is to question whether these matters should be in the hands of politicians at all. The question of when elections should be held is of fundamental constitutional importance. It is a constitutional fixture and politicians should not be able to get their sticky fingers on it. That would be viewed as an outrage in most other constitutional democracies, but we believe that it is entirely normal that we can mess around with such things at whim. We juggle all sorts of political considerations that have consequences and complications, which the Bill aims to tackle.
At one time, the Labour party was on the path of righteousness on these matters. Up until 1992, it believed that such decisions should not be in the hands of politicians. Indeed, its 1992 election manifesto said:No government with a majority should be allowed to put the interests of party above government, as the Conservatives have done. Although an early election will sometimes be necessary, we would introduce as a general rule a fixed parliamentary term".That was right then and it is right now. Apart from the fact that we are now in office, I am not sure why we have moved from that position. When we were setting up new Parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, we stayed on the path of righteousness and provided for fixed terms.
We introduced the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill—a good measure that sought to control spending in a pre-election period. It is much harder to do that if one does not know when the election is to be.
§ Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)
I cannot understand my hon. Friend's logic. He argues that there should be a fixed term, but this deferral of the local elections is clearly 407 a breach of that. Is he saying that a fixed term should never be varied, or that the current proposal is not acceptable?
§ Tony Wright
I am saying that we have the Bill in this form, on this date, because the considerations that are being juggled are not the narrow considerations in the Bill but the wider considerations of choosing the date for a general election.
§ Tony Wright
If my hon. Friend does not know that, where is he? Perhaps we should pretend to ourselves that that is not the case, but we do a disservice to the people whom we represent if we maintain that pretence in public.
On the extraordinarily exceptional occasions when a fixed election might have to be moved, are politicians the best people to make the decision? We have just established an Electoral Commission—another excellent thing—and these are pre-eminently the circumstances, when an extraordinary event occurs that suggests that a constitutional fixture might have to be moved, when such an independent commission, operating on grounds of public interest, not of short-term, narrow political advantage, should be brought into play.
Sometimes, out of disaster, good sense breaks out. I hope that, as the House considers the Bill, we will heed the argument for taking the setting of election dates away from politicians and putting it into the hands of someone who can safeguard the public interest.
§ Mr. Don Foster (Bath)
My hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) made it clear in an earlier debate that the Liberal Democrats totally oppose the way in which the Government are handling the Bill. The way it is being rushed through the House is nothing short of a constitutional disgrace. I agree with the remarks made in that debate by the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), when he described it as a scandal.
I agree entirely, however, with the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) that the principle of the Bill should be supported. The Liberal Democrats believe that the Prime Minister was faced with an enormously difficult decision and that the decision to defer, taken after due reflection, was the right one.
The only point on which I fundamentally disagreed with the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) was when he rather implied that the Prime Minister had made that decision on a whim. The whole House will have welcomed the hon. Gentleman's refreshingly honest speech, which contained much common sense and a great deal with which all Liberal Democrats would entirely agree, since we have long argued for fixed electoral terms. With characteristic honesty, he also said that there will certainly be a general election on 7 June—"Trust me, I'm a politician." I am entirely convinced that he will be proved right.
I want to refer to some amendments that, because of the shortness of time, we will not have time to discuss in Committee. If the right hon. Member for Maidstone and 408 The Weald persists with the amendments suggesting that the delay could be not simply to 7 June but to any one of a number of different dates, and that those dates could be different in different parts of the country, she will certainly get no support from the Liberal Democrats. The notion of having local government elections on different dates in different areas strikes us as frankly crazy. It would be unfair to certain groups of electors and wholly impracticable.
I suspect that the Government share that view. I am grateful that they have quickly produced the new election timetable, but I note, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove did, that it had to be rapidly revised 24 hours after its original publication.
§ Mr. Foster
As ever, I will happily give way to the hon. Gentleman, whose interventions I always so much enjoy.
§ Mr. Bercow
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman. We are at an early stage in our deliberations, and he need not have been quite so generous to me. I suggest, however, that it would be unwise for him to worship at the altar of 7 June. I understand his point on different dates for elections in different areas—although I do not agree with it—but does he accept that for the Government to insist on that date, and to die in the ditch for it, is both arbitrary and capricious?
§ Mr. Foster
No, I do not. I am delighted, incidentally, that the hon. Gentleman said that I was being too generous in giving way to him. As that was the first intervention in my speech, I will bear that in mind the next time he tries for a third or fourth intervention, as he so often does when I speak in other debates.
It is important that the delay be a relatively short one, because it would do democracy a huge disservice if there were to be continuing uncertainty about the date of the local government elections. Conservative Members have tabled amendments pointing out that we need greater clarity about the dates of other events, such as the annual meetings of police and fire authorities. I am sure that they would agree that there must be clarity about when the local elections are to be, and that only in extreme circumstances—perhaps those in which primary legislation is required—should we contemplate any further delay beyond 7 June.
I want to make a few remarks about Northern Ireland, as I fear that we will not reach the amendments tabled on the issue. It is important that the Government should be given the opportunity to make further comments about the situation in Northern Ireland before the Bill goes to another place. I hope that the Minister will say something about the possibility of both elections—general and local—being held on the same day, and the arrangements that would be put in place for that. The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said that he was absolutely confident on the security issue, but I do not think that that confidence is widely shared in the House. Undoubtedly other hon. Members will wish to comment on that matter.
There are huge questions, for example, about who will have legal responsibility for the verification of ballot boxes in a joint election. People will want an answer to 409 that question. Quite legitimate questions are also being asked about the arrangements for postal votes. It appears that, if a dual election were held on 7 June, postal voting arrangements for the two elections would be different. Such arrangements could cause great confusion, so plans need to be put in place quickly to sort them out.
§ Mr. Foster
I am sure that every hon. Member would like to be absolutely assured by Ministers that every conceivable arrangement is being made to avoid malpractice in Northern Ireland and in every other part of the United Kingdom. I hope that the Minister will give us clear assurances on those issues. I hope that he will also give us clear assurances that there will continue to be consultation with the relevant body on those issues.
When the Minister replies to the debate, I hope very much that he will be a little more convincing about the foot and mouth aspect of delay in Northern Ireland. I was slightly surprised by another outbreak of honesty when the Minister said that the measure is about increasing voter turnout at the elections. Although I am greatly in favour of measures to improve voter turnout, I do not think that that objective can justify changing the agreed date of an election. Although increased turnout as a by-product of the change is welcome, the decision for the change must be based on the foot and mouth outbreak.
I have various quick questions for the Minister, which he may be able to answer in his reply. There is some confusion about whether the Bill will make the necessary change to the Local Government Act 1972, which specifically provides that county councillors' term of office shall be for four years. That term will clearly be altered if the Bill is passed, but I have seen no reference to that alteration in the Bill. May I have an assurance that the issue is being addressed?
The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald mentioned the use of schools for the later election. We noted with interest the Home Secretary's statement that local authorities' expenses will be allowed if they were unavoidably incurred because of the electoral delay, but not if they were caused by the foot and mouth issue. So although the legislation may not deal with church buildings, which were mentioned earlier, presumably it will deal with the issue of finding alternative premises to schools that are being used for GCSEs. There may be some confusion about that issue and it would be helpful if we had some clarification on it.
I hope very much that the Government will accept the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald on changing the date of the police and fire authority annual meetings. We will definitely join Conservative Members in the Lobby to vote on the change if the Government do not accept the amendment.
I was delighted that the Home Secretary gave us a very clear assurance on the validity of nominations in relation to the rolling electoral arrangements.
Local councils will face another problem because of the delay. The Minister will be well aware that, under the Local Government Act 2000, it is anticipated that, by 410 the end of June, local councils will have to submit detailed proposals on their new ways of working. Given the difficulties that many councils face, not only with foot and mouth but with the delayed elections, would it not be appropriate to extend that time?
I am absolutely delighted that the Home Secretary has accepted the principle that the Liberal Democrat leader, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy), was advocating yesterday and which others now support—that it would be absolutely inappropriate in the current circumstances to consider providing compensation to candidates. It would be totally wrong to provide compensation and small sums to them when so many other people are not only losing great sums and incurring huge expenses but losing their livelihoods.
I was disappointed, however, that the Home Secretary still seems to believe that it might be appropriate for independent candidates to receive compensation. A possible inference from such compensation is that the registered political parties should cover the expenses of their candidates. Very often, those expenses are paid out of pocket by the individual candidate, whether he or she is a Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat candidate. I think that the same arrangement should apply to independent candidates and that no compensation for the delay should be given to any candidate. Nevertheless, I welcome the 50 per cent. increase in the election expense limit.
Liberal Democrat Members support the Bill in principle, although we hope that it will be amended as I have described. Nevertheless, as I said, we accept that the Prime Minister had a difficult decision to make and that the legislation must now be rapidly enacted. Subject to our support for those amendments, we shall certainly give the Bill our full support.
§ 8.7 pm
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
Deferment of the local elections is precisely what Opposition Members were demanding. Reference has already been made to the fact that, some time ago, the Leader of the Opposition said that the local elections should not be held now because of foot and mouth disease. Conservative Members are therefore hardly in a position to vote against Second Reading. Although I realise that they have said that they will not vote against it, in view of their consistent comments, they really could not vote against it.
We can imagine what Opposition Members would be saying if the elections had gone ahead on 3 May and, two days ago, the Prime Minister had announced a general election. They are concerned and afraid of a general election, not local elections, because of longstanding substantial Labour leads in the opinion polls. If the Prime Minister had said that there would be both local elections and a general election on 7 June, Conservative Members would have said that he was putting party before Government. Today, they would be throwing around that accusation rather debating as they are.
§ Mr. Waterson
Does the hon. Gentleman not understand the very simple distinction between an election whose date is fixed by statute—the local elections—and 411 the date for a general election, which is entirely at the whim of the Prime Minister and does not have to be called for at least another year?
§ Mr. Winnick
I heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) said about another year, but I was here in the 1980s—
§ Mr. Winnick
Both 1983 and 1987 were years in which elections were held before their time, and not one Conservative Member argued then that there should not be a general election. I doubt whether it would have been any different if there had been a foot and mouth outbreak. Labour Members did not welcome a general election on either of those dates, but we never argued that the then Prime Minister should not call one. The decision was up to her.
If circumstances were different and Conservative Members were generally confident that they could win a general election, they would not ask for a deferment of the local elections. On the contrary: they would say that democracy must go ahead. They would argue that the Prime Minister had no reason to alter the previously fixed date for the election and they would urge that the general election take place.
Before foot and mouth came on the scene, there was no demand from the Opposition regarding the general election. That is why I argue that Conservative Members are terrified of a general election and that they will use any excuse to defer it for as long as possible until the five years of this Parliament are up.
§ Mr. Gapes
Does my hon. Friend recall that, at the height of last September's fuel protests, the Leader of the Opposition at one point—when the opinion polls temporarily indicated an improvement in the Conservative party's performance—called for an immediate general election? Is it not interesting that that call should have disappeared?
§ Mr. Winnick
In a moment. If there were any possibility that the Conservative party might win a general election instead of suffering another humiliation, there would be no question of deferring any election, national or local.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)
Order. I should remind the hon. Gentleman that the Bill is not about a general election. It is about the deferment of the local elections.
§ Mr. Winnick
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I give way to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins).
§ Mr. Hawkins
Given that, as Mr. Deputy Speaker has just pointed out, we are discussing the deferment of the 412 local elections, is not the hon. Gentleman's argument torpedoed by the fact that all political commentators in all newspapers predict sweeping Labour losses in the local elections?
§ Mr. Winnick
The Tories fear the general election, not the local elections. I accept what you said, Mr. Deputy Speaker, of course. I shall simply repeat that the Tory party is demonstrating, beyond any doubt, its hypocrisy and opportunism. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) said, Conservative Members were only too willing for a general election to be held last year, when there was the slight possibility that they might win. They have exhibited utter hypocrisy about deferring the general election. Of course they do not want it on 7 June. They want it deferred, if possible to next year. We understand their reasons very well.
§ Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)
I hope to produce the shortest speech in the debate so far, as I have just a few points to make about the Bill.
As you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, pointed out, we are dealing with the postponement of the local government elections. However, there is a background to the debate, as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright). We all know what that background is.
I think that the Prime Minister was right to decide not to go to the country on 3 May. It would have been feasible to do so, but would it have been wise? The foot and mouth epidemic is a serious crisis, and to have proceeded with the election would have appeared insensitive to the problems being experienced by people in many parts of the country.
There is widespread speculation that the Prime Minister hopes to hold the election on 7 June, rather than 3 May. Either date would mean that the general election would be held within two or three weeks of local government elections in Northern Ireland. That would not be desirable.
It has happened twice before—in 1997, and on an earlier occasion—that local elections in Northern Ireland and a general election have been held close together. It is not a good idea to have two such elections within a few weeks of each other. In 1997, the local government elections were held just over two weeks after the general election, and turnout suffered significantly.
The Liberal Democrat party has argued that it would not be a good idea to have the general election and the local government elections in Northern Ireland on the same day. I suspect that that argument was being advanced on behalf of the Alliance party, which does not want a large election turnout. It hopes to slip some candidates into office on an indifferent turnout.
I welcome elections, and the more people who vote in them, the better. When two elections come close together, the sensible and commonsense response is to hold them on the same day. That is what the Bill will achieve. Consequently, I think that it is right in principle.
Unfortunately, however, the Bill has been introduced very quickly. We understand the reasons for that, but a number of technical matters have to be considered. One of the disadvantages of the present arrangements is that they will not allow sufficient time to look at those matters. It is a bad mistake by the Government not to provide more time.
413 A significant number of hon. Members have much knowledge, practical experience and expertise when it comes to elections. If any group of people is fit to consider the details of election, it is the Members of this House. I wholly disagree with the hon. Member for Cannock Chase in that regard. Members of Parliament are elected to safeguard the public interest, and the suggestion that unelected people would be better guardians of the public interest is objectionable as a matter of principle. However, I shall not pursue that further.
It is a pity that we do not have more time to look at the details. If all points cannot be dealt with tonight, the Government must ensure that they are pursued in another place.
Finally, I want to make one general point. There are a lot of elections in the United Kingdom now—for Parliament, local government, the regional Assemblies and the Scottish Parliament, and for Europe. Various terms and dates govern those institutions. It would be worth giving serious consideration to the election timetable, and to the interaction between elections.
In addition, it would be worth while to give serious consideration to the state of the statute book on elections, which is in a mess. What we are doing today is likely to add to that mess. There is a serious need, therefore, to look at electoral law in the United Kingdom as a whole, with a view to producing a simple, consolidated Act to deal with the matter. At present, it is very difficult to know precisely what the law is.
I have made clear my points of principle, so I shall bring my speech to an end, thus achieving the feat of sitting back down on the Bench before my name appears on the annunciator screen.
§ Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), and to say that I agree strongly with most of what he said, and especially with his last point. We need to look at the election statute book relatively soon. The matter is complicated, in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. I represent a London constituency, and there are no elections in London this year. However, the capital has its own electoral cycle, with borough elections every four years, followed every two years by elections for the Mayor and Assembly. It is a complicated arrangement.
I want to raise a more difficult question. I understand why the decision to defer has been taken, but I am a London MP, and the only wildlife in my constituency consists of urban foxes or the escaped rabbits that the foxes eat. There are no farms in my area, and life there has not been affected by foot and mouth in any way at all. That is true for the vast majority of people, parliamentary constituencies and local authorities in the UK. However, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Government have taken the decision because a significant minority of the country is badly affected by the crisis.
The decision to postpone elections is a serious matter. I do not want to have to do it again. Sometimes, democracy has to be conducted in difficult circumstances. I was an observer with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation at the elections for the Russian Duma on 19 December 1999. I was in a place called Barnaul in western Siberia. The temperature on polling day was minus 27 deg. They had something there which we do not 414 have but might consider for future elections—a mobile ballot box. It is put on a heavy vehicle with chains and big wheels and goes to the most remote farms. People who are lying in their sick bed, have bronchitis or have difficulty in walking are able to participate in an election with the assistance of that device, even in those very harsh climatic conditions.
We do not have extremes of climate. We have postal votes, and our systems of mass communication are much more sophisticated. So the arguments for deferral must be carefully weighed. I do not support any move for an indefinite deferral. It causes many problems for local government and it sends the signal that democracy in local government and society is not important.
I am afraid that I disagree strongly with my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright). I do not believe that the judiciary, or some collection of the great and the good from academia, should determine how our political system should function. We must take responsibility for making the decisions, and we should suffer the consequences if we make the wrong ones. It is a cop-out for democratic politicians to say that these decisions are nothing to do with us and that others will decide on our behalf. That is not why I am in politics, and I do not think that Members of this House should, if they think about it, take that approach either.
I referred in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) to the views expressed by the putative Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, last September. I have drawn attention to that in early-day motion 488. The Conservative party is playing a very opportunistic game, and it is bizarre. On the one hand, Conservative Members call for an early general election; on the other, they want the indefinite postponement of local elections and presumably take the view that the general election should be put off as long as possible. That was not the view taken by Margaret Thatcher in 1983, after four years of a Parliament, or in 1987, after four years of a Parliament. It was not the view taken by Harold Wilson in 1970, although he got it wrong. He was ahead in the polls, but he lost. In our society, Governments that are popular and have a large majority go to the country early. That is a basic rule. Governments that are unpopular and in trouble hang on until the end.
I should like to conclude with a little anecdote.
§ Mr. Gapes
Not at the moment. I should like to tell my story.
I worked at Labour party headquarters in the 1970s. In 1978, I was the national organiser for Labour students. I was at a National Union of Students training conference at Nottingham university in September 1978 when I received a telephone call from Transport house saying that I should return to London for a meeting at No. 10 Downing street the following morning at 10 am. I was told not to tell anybody, so I assumed that the then Prime Minister, now Lord Callaghan, was going to announce the election that day and that he would go on television to address the nation.
All the students piled into the television room at Nottingham university, waiting for the announcement. I knew that it would definitely happen because I had been told to come back to London the next morning. 415 The Prime Minister came on the television and said that there was no election, he was carrying on and he had a job to do. I spent the next 40 minutes frantically trying to find someone to speak to who could confirm whether the meeting was on, because I had to get the train to London that night. No one was available.
I got the train to London, went to my office where I saw a big notice on my desk saying "Sorry. Meeting cancelled." The general secretary of the Labour party, Ron Hayward, had phoned all the people who were out of London to get them back because he was convinced, in September 1978, that the general election would be called by the Prime Minister.
That shows how personal the decision is. It indicates to me that it is a very difficult decision. Therefore, my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase is wrong. We do not know when the general election will be, because none of us is privy to the Prime Minister's thoughts on the day that he makes that decision. It is a personal decision that he will make. None of us can assume that the election will be held on any particular date in the future.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman has put me in a dilemma. I thought that I could not rob the House of his punch line, but I must now remind him that this is an embroidery well beyond the terms of the Bill.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)
I always wondered how they had invented the spin doctor, and now I know. If that was the father of spin doctors, no wonder they wanted to get away.
I happen to agree with the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright). I believe in fixed-term Parliaments. Every other body in this country is elected on a fixed-term basis, and it would be sensible if the Government were as well. However, as you have reminded us, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that is not what we are discussing.
We are discussing the date of the county council elections. I called for them to be postponed even before my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made that call. I believed that it was the right thing to do because, as a Member representing a constituency that has foot and mouth, I see at first hand the real agony and anguish that this terrible disease is causing in the rural community. It was right and proper for the Prime Minister to take the decision that he did, and it is right and proper that Parliament should pass this legislation. I deeply regret the way in which it is being rushed through, however, because it contains issues of substance and there are amendments to it on the Order Paper.
I rose to speak, Mr. Deputy Speaker, only because it looks as though we shall not have the privilege of addressing you as Sir Alan later on, because the proceedings on Second Reading and the remaining stages must be concluded by 9 o'clock. As there are winding-up speeches to be made from the Front Benches, it seems that we will not have a chance to discuss the amendments.
For me, one issue above all is of substance. That concerns the date. If the Prime Minister was rightly concerned last week that the epidemic was not under 416 control, I do not for the life of me understand how he can be confident of knowing by 10 or 14 May—which I believe is the very latest date for another postponement—that 7 June will be a clear day. That is why I strongly support the move, and I tabled an amendment to that effect, which was selected, to give ourselves the opportunity by affirmative resolution to come to both Houses of Parliament and defer the date again to another date perhaps in June, or perhaps to defer the date in certain parts of the country. I readily accept that it may be appropriate to have county council elections on 7 June in Lincolnshire whereas, sadly, it may not be appropriate to have them in Staffordshire and it almost certainly would not be appropriate in Cumbria or Devon.
The fundamental mistake that the Government have made in drafting the Bill is not to have allowed themselves and the House flexibility—an escape clause so that they could change the date without having to go through the rigmarole of primary legislation yet again. If we had incorporated a provision such as that outlined in my amendment or that tabled by my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench, we would have built flexibility into the measure.
We are denying ourselves, those whom we represent, and those whom the county councillors will represent a real opportunity. Sadly, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you did not hear the admirable brief speech made by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright). He said that the Prime Minister was clearly seeking to orchestrate two elections on one day. My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) made it plain from the Front Bench that Conservative Members were not apprehensive about the results of the county council elections. We are most anxious to have them. All the pundits predict that they are likely to result in significant gains for my party. We look forward to that enormously. It is because the Prime Minister knows that and does not want to go to the country in a general election against that background that he is trying to put the two elections on one day. In advancing the argument for fixed terms, the hon. Member for Cannock Chase hit the nail on the head. He is right.
Others wish to speak, so I will not say any more save to appeal even at this late stage to the Minister. The Bill has to go to another place so, although there will not be a Committee stage in this House this evening, perhaps there will be one in another place. I urge the Minister to amend the Bill to reflect the spirit of my amendment and that tabled by my right hon. and hon. Friends. That would give flexibility to Government and Parliament to move the election date if sadly, this terrible disease is still ravaging the countryside.
Those of us who went today to the presentation arranged by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and listened to the experts know that the disease is not under control yet. I devoutly hope that it will be on 7 June, but I have real doubts. So I say to the Minister, please, please, heed these pleas and put some flexibility into the Bill before it reaches the statute book.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)
I shall be extremely brief. I warmly welcome the Bill in principle, although I have some concerns about it. Unlike some of my colleagues, I believe that there is a need to put the Bill through quickly because we have a statutory duty, 417 if the local elections are to be postponed, to specify the new date on which the local elections are to be held. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), I believe that the House has a duty and a responsibility to specify another date when they are to be held. To leave it open would be unconstitutional and most unsatisfactory.
I have to say to the Minister, and perhaps here I share the views of my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire, that I am not sure that 7 June is right. However, we clearly need to specify another date. I was at the briefing session to which my hon. Friend referred. It is clear that the daily number of cases of foot and mouth could peak in the second half of the local authority election campaign and perhaps even that of the general election campaign. If the Government's chief scientific adviser is to be heeded, in the worst scenario the number of cases could peak at more than 400 cases a day around 21 May. That clearly causes concern.
I want to ask specific questions. The Minister will be aware that I said earlier that in my area at least one parochial church council—Eaton council in the south of my constituency—had said that it was not prepared to make the church hall available as a polling station in the immediate future because it had concerns about the countryside, farming and the foot and mouth crisis.
My local authority will incur additional expenditure in administering the election. Will the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), assure me that local authorities will be properly reimbursed for necessary, additional expenditure incurred in carrying out our democratic procedures for local elections? At this stage, I make no reference to a general election that may or may not also be held on 7 June.
I am also concerned that, in many areas of my constituency, farmers will not be able to get off their farms and candidates will be unable to canvas and to introduce themselves to farmers. As several new candidates are standing for Cheshire county council in my area, how are electors to know all the candidates for whom they will have an opportunity to vote? Serious consideration should be given to allowing one free postal delivery for county council election candidates—if not to the country at large, at least to those parts of the countryside where severe restrictions and exclusion areas will prevent the operation of the normal democratic process.
I feel deeply concerned about that matter. I myself cannot call on many of my farmers at present, because I do not want to risk spreading that dreadful virus—the foot and mouth disease that affects so much of our countryside. Although many people may say, "The countryside is open", I point out to Ministers who highlight that fact and have recently used that expression time and again, that many people who have direct or indirect association with the farming community—especially the livestock farming community—do not want visitors to the countryside, irrespective of the losses that may be sustained both for that community and allied industries and businesses.
The Government have a unique opportunity to show good sense and a full understanding of the problems experienced in the countryside due to the foot and mouth restrictions. If the Minister could at least give an indication that the Government might consider making provision in the measure for a free postal delivery for 418 local election candidates—especially in areas affected by foot and mouth—I should be delighted. From the Government's point of view, that would show a true understanding of democracy and of the need for everyone to have the opportunity not only to know their local authority candidate, but to go out and vote on polling day.
§ Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East)
I am inclined to accept the Prime Minister's judgment on delaying the local government elections in England and Wales. That is all the more relevant because—as it had clearly been the right hon. Gentleman's intention to hold on the same day the local government elections and the general election, for which polls showed that he was significantly ahead—such a delay might have been considered something of a sacrifice. However, I oppose the proposition that the local government elections in Northern Ireland should be linked to that delay. Those elections were to be held not on 3 May, but on 16 May.
I was surprised to read the element of the Bill relating to Northern Ireland. When the Prime Minister made his announcement and was interviewed outside No. 10 Downing street, he was immediately asked by Ken Reid of Ulster Television about the possible implications for Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister replied that, because Northern Ireland was in the second category—namely, that there had been an incident of foot and mouth, but no reoccurrence—it was important to return to normality as quickly as possible. One might have concluded, therefore, that normality would involve going ahead with what was normal—an election on 16 May. Having listened during this debate and the previous one, I have heard nothing from those on the Government Front Bench that would support their decision to postpone the election in Northern Ireland until 7 June.
Foot and mouth disease is not the reason for the postponement. The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is inaccurate in saying that there is a low level of the disease in Northern Ireland. There is no foot and mouth disease in Northern Ireland. There was one incident of a republican smuggler who tried to make money on the side and caused havoc around the border in the Republic and in Northern Ireland, but there has been no recurrence. Indeed, the Government successfully argued in Europe that there was no foot and mouth disease in Northern Ireland, so let us remove that from the possible reasons why they have taken this decision.
Of course the Government might argue, although they cannot do so publicly, that they want the postponement because they did not want to have two elections on 7 June, given the likelihood of a general election. As the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) said, that has happened on several occasions in the past, with higher turnouts than normal in Great Britain, even if the elections were not on the same day. So the Government cannot use that argument.
I was somewhat surprised to hear the right hon. Member for Upper Bann say that he looks forward to elections, because he has been trying to ban the local government elections in Northern Ireland. He has said that they should be put off altogether and that there should be a review of local government for a year or two before holding them. However, he comes to the House and has the audacity to say that he wants to hold elections and is 419 looking forward to them. Well, I am looking forward to the elections in Northern Ireland and, irrespective of whether they are held on 16 May or 7 June, the people are looking forward to the opportunity to speak at the ballot box.
On the Minister's response, it is fully clear that the Bill has been introduced for a political purpose. The Government believe—wrongly, I think—that it will be a boost to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann and to the Social Democratic and Labour party, but they will, in effect, ensure that the local government elections in Northern Ireland will be overshadowed by the issues relevant to the Westminster election. Therefore, people will come out for the local government election, as well as for the Westminster election, to deal with the key issue in Northern Ireland—the Belfast agreement—and on that argument, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann will undoubtedly lose.
Clearly, we shall have no opportunity to speak in Committee, so let me say that I should have been interested to find out from those on the Government Front Bench why on earth they have included subsections 2(2) and 2(3). Nomination day in Northern Ireland would not have taken place until the end of April or the beginning of May, by which time the Bill will be law, so no one can be nominated and, therefore, subsections 2(2) and 2(3) are superfluous. The matters that concern my colleagues and me greatly are those that relate to the schedule.
§ Mr. William Ross
Has the hon. Gentleman not noticed that the only possible reason for those provisions is that the Bill will become permanent legislation? It will not die, so it can be applied if a similar situation ever exists in future, and I believe that it will not be very good legislation.
§ Mr. Robinson
If that is the case it is very sad indeed. The right hon. Member for Upper Bann did not tell the House that the very good reason for not holding a local government election and a Westminster election on the same day in Northern Ireland is that there are two different electoral systems. That will cause untold confusion at the polling stations, especially for elderly people. On one hand, people will have to vote with a cross in the Westminster election and, on the other, they will have to select their first, second or third choice and beyond in the local government elections. There will undoubtedly be significantly more spoiled votes as a result of holding a dual election for Westminster and local government. So I hope that these provisions will not be used in the future, although the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) may well be right about the Government's intention.
I particularly ask the Government to reconsider the leeway that they will give to returning officers under new rule 46A. They want to let the returning officer determine whether to open the ballot boxes in either the local government or Westminster elections and remove the stray ballot papers from the other election. That should not be left to the judgment of returning officers; they should be required to do that. However, under the new rule, they simply "may" do that. That is not good enough, particularly in a local government election under proportional representation when two fifths of a vote have, in the past, 420 made the difference between one candidate and another being elected. In addition, a handful of votes could decide a Westminster seat, so such flexibility should not be built into the Bill.
I wish to allow those on the Front Benches the opportunity to wind up but, finally, may I express my concern that the oversight that counting agents should be entitled to have over the opening of ballot boxes is not a requirement under the Bill. Indeed, in a hole in the corner, someone might be able to open up the ballot boxes and tamper with their contents. Oversight should be permitted and counting agents should be allowed—arrangements should be made for this—to see the opening of the ballot boxes. That is essential, and returning officers should be given instructions to ensure that that happens.
Although the inclination of my colleagues and I would have been to vote against the Bill's Second Reading because we are opposed to those elements of it that relate to Northern Ireland, we are prepared to forgo that opportunity rather than take up the further time that such a Division would cause.
§ Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)
Because of the ridiculously short time allowed by the guillotine and the fact that we want the Minister to answer some of the important questions that have been raised on Second Reading, I shall be extremely brief. I will not have the opportunity to comment in any detail on a number of the interesting issues that have been raised. However, I repeat something that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) said in her opening remarks. When the Prime Minister weighs all the factors in the balance, as he said he would have to do in answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) on 21 March, the Government will not be able to offer any certainty that the position on the terrible foot and mouth epidemic will be any better in June than in May.
My right hon. Friends Members for Maidstone and The Weald and for Richmond, Yorks have said that flexibility should be built into the Bill so that the date of local elections can be reconsidered depending on when the disease is genuinely under control. Four objective tests should also be applied.
First, the standard time between the report of a new case of the disease and the slaughter of the animals in question should be 24 hours or less. At present, we know that, sadly, the backlog of animals waiting to be slaughtered and waiting to be buried after slaughter is growing. The second objective test is that the geographical spread of the disease has been reversed. The Government cannot say with confidence that the position will be any better in June than in May. The third objective test is that movement restrictions should have been lifted from most farms, and the final test is that the trend in new cases of the disease is clearly downward, rather than upward as it tragically still is.
There is so much more that Opposition Members could say but, given the limitations on time and the fact that we must have answers from the Minister, I shall incorporate everything that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald said in my conclusion. Her comments remain just as valid at the end of the debate as they were at the beginning.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien)
I express my gratitude to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) for the brevity of his remarks. I hope that that will allow me to reply to many of the important points that have been raised in what has been a good debate. It raised serious questions, but I am grateful to hon. Members for their broad agreement that it would not be appropriate to hold elections in England and Wales, at least, on 3 May. I also thank Members in other parties for the support that they have offered for the proposal that we should defer the local elections until 7 June. I appreciate that there were concerns about those issues, some of which I hope to address.
The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) raised several significant matters. She mentioned that GCSE examinations take place in June, which might have implications if local government elections take place on 7 June. It is difficult to choose an election date because it always coincides with another event, such as factory holidays. The Conservatives faced that choice when they were in government and decided to hold elections in June 1983, June 1987 and June 1970. Each time, they had to take account of the fact that examinations were being conducted in schools.
We are certain that acting returning officers showed admirable flexibility on those occasions and will do so again. They have the resources and ability to prepare for elections, and can ensure that locations for polling stations do not interfere with the ability of young people to take their examinations. I am sure that acting returning officers will put contingency plans into effect as the need arises. Examinations are often staged in only part of a school's premises and it may well be possible for the polling station to be moved to a different area in the school. The issue is important. We have considered it and believe that we can rely on acting returning officers to deal with the problem.
The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald and the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) raised the issue of free mailshots, to which we gave careful consideration. If I may spare the hon. Gentleman's blushes, he made a statesmanlike speech. The difficulty, is that if we have mailshots in areas that are affected by foot and mouth, it will be incumbent on us to provide the same facility to other people across the country. Different issues arise at different times in different places. It would be difficult to say that the circumstances are so unique that free mailshots should be given in one area rather than another. We would have to consider giving the facility to all candidates and people would ask why, if we could do it this year, we could not do it next year. We need a longer time scale in which to consider free mailshots, although I realise that the hon. Gentleman presents a problem that we face now.
The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald said—perhaps she should consult Hansard on this—that some areas are not having post delivered and they should have free mailshots, which slightly defeats the point. I think she meant that there are difficulties in delivering post in some areas because it cannot be taken to the door. However, farms are making alternative arrangements—such as providing a facility at the end of the driveway—to collect their post. By and large, mail is being delivered, so it is possible for someone to take a leaflet to those 422 places without going across a restricted area. Having considered circumstances in my constituency, I think that it would be possible to hand-deliver leaflets. If the expenses are raised as the Government propose, there is a facility for some mailshots to be sent by post by the candidate of a person's choice.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack
Will the hon. Gentleman reconsider his decision? Special consideration is being given to parts of the country during the foot and mouth crisis. I am sure that an exception could also be made for postal deliveries.
§ Mr. Mike O'Brien
We have considered that carefully and I cannot reassure the hon. Gentleman that we will give it further consideration. I heard what he said; the Government always try to listen on such issues. However, we have considered the matter carefully and I think that we have a settled position.
The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald raised a number of issues. First, on meetings of police authorities, the power in clause 7 will allow us to make an order to postpone the date on which police authority annual meetings have to be held. I hope that that provides reassurance.
§ Mr. O'Brien
I will but, given the limited time and the large number of questions that have been asked, it is the last time that I shall to do so.
§ Mr. Heath
While the hon. Gentleman is dealing with police authorities, will he confirm that the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994 specifies a four-year term for members of a police authority? Will that be dealt with in consequent legislation?
§ Mr. O'Brien
Indeed, that issue was raised in our debate, and I am coming on to it. The period for which councillors and others are elected depends on the re-election of others. The fact that we are postponing the elections enables councillors to retain their position; we are advised in law that that is the case and we will be safe to continue to allow councillors and members of police authorities and other organisations to retain their position as councillors for the month between 3 May and 7 June, so that the election can take place. If the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) wants me to write to him and set out the details, I am happy to do so—[Interruption.] I will do the same for his hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster).
I was asked about the updating of electoral registers. That is a significant issue which we are still examining. It is outside the scope of the Bill, but we shall consider the point made by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald. The hon. Member for Macclesfield asked whether the Bill allows for compensation to be paid in cases in which churches cannot be used. Compensation will be paid to local authorities for the additional expenditure incurred as a result of the postponement of 423 the local elections; we will have to provide guidance on the detail of that, and I hope that it will deal with the sort of points made by the hon. Gentleman. Compensation would not be used in relation to churches; it would be available for local authorities regarding the extra costs that they incur.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) for supporting the Bill and the decision to postpone local elections. He proposed a single consolidated Bill to deal with all elections; that is an interesting thought on which I shall reflect. I am also grateful for the support of the hon. Member for Bath, who spoke for the Liberal Democrats. He asked a number of questions, the first of which was a request for more information on local government elections in Northern Ireland. I can provide reassurances in addition to those provided by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Returning officers are experienced in operating more than one election on the same day, as happened in 1997, so, even if a general election were called to coincide with local elections, we are confident that electoral officers will run fair polls and, as we heard earlier, that the electorate will cast separate votes at the same time.
I was asked who will verify the ballot boxes if—
§ Rev. Ian Paisley
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will the Minister instruct the House accurately? He has just quoted an incident and said that two elections took place in one day. That is not true at all.
§ Mr. O'Brien
I heard what the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) said, and I will check—[Interruption.] I am briefed that that occurred, but my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has told me that the briefing may have been inaccurate, so the hon. Gentleman may well be right. May I check and write to the hon. Gentleman to clarify the matter?
Time is running out for me to deal with other points made by hon. Members. The points raised were important. I do not accept the argument of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) that we do not need certainty: we do need certainty about the date of the local government elections. I agree entirely with his hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield that Parliament has said in the past that it requires certainty. That is why we have a specific date—
§ It being Nine o'clock, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Order [this day], That the Bill be now read a Second time.
§ Question agreed to.
§ Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Committee of the whole House, pursuant to Order [this day].
§ Further proceedings stood postponed, pursuant to Order [this day].