HC Deb 04 April 2001 vol 366 cc424-38

'(2A) The Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument appoint a day later than 7th June 2001 to which the elections mentioned in subsections (1) and (2) are to be postponed if he is satisfied that the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease is not under control in a particular local authority area; and different days may be appointed for different local authority areas.

(2B) For the purposes of subsection (2A), the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease is "under control" when:

  1. (a) the standard time between the report of a new case of the disease and the slaughter of the animals in question is 24 hours or less; and
  2. (b) the geographical spread of the disease has been reversed; and
  3. (c) movement restrictions have been lifted from most farms; and
  4. (d) the trend in new cases of the disease is clearly downward.

(2C) An order made under subsection (2A) shall not be made unless a draft of the order has been laid before, and approved by, each House of Parliament.

(2D) An order made under subsection (2A) may include such consequential, transitional or supplementary provision as the Secretary of State considers appropriate, and in particular may include provision for the postponement of a local government election to fill a casual vacancy which falls to be held after 7th June 2001 but before the day appointed in the order.'.

Brought up, and read the First time

Mr. Hawkins

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 1, in clause 1, page 1, line 3, at beginning insert— 'Subject to section [Further postponement of elections until foot and mouth disease under control],'.

No. 2, in page 1, line 6, at beginning insert 'Subject to section [Further postponement of elections until foot and mouth disease under control],'.

Mr. Hawkins

New clause 1 has been deliberately drafted in as similar a form as possible to amendment No. 13, which was not reached in Committee. That further reinforces the argument that the guillotine imposed by the Government was ridiculously short. We did not debate any of the 50 amendments in Committee, and there were still hon. Members who wanted to speak on Second Reading when the wind-up speeches started, despite attempts by right hon. and hon. Members to be brief.

Our new clause suggests that the Secretary of State should by order made by statutory instrument appoint a day later than 7 June 2001 to which the elections mentioned in clauses 1(1) and 1(2) are to be postponed if he is satisfied that the outbreak of foot and mouth disease is not under control in a particular local authority area. Different days may be appointed for different local authority areas.

As I said in my wind-up speech on Second Reading, our view is that there should be four objective tests by which it could be established whether the terrible disease is genuinely under control. We all remember that the Minister of Agriculture suggested that the disease was under control at a very early stage, but he was patently misleading the country. It soon became clear that he had to apologise to all farmers and citizens for making those comments.

The Opposition suggest that four objective tests should be satisfied before a decision can be made. Those tests are set out in subsection (2) of the new clause. First proposed subsection (2)(a) would require that the standard time between the report of a new case of the disease and the slaughter of the animals in question is 24 hours or less". Sadly, as we have heard, hundreds of thousands of animals are not being slaughtered in time. Often, even those that are slaughtered are not buried in time.

Secondly, the new clause proposes that a decision on elections should be made only if the geographical spread of the disease has been reversed". Unfortunately, we know that the geographical spread is getting wider. Thirdly, the new clause would require that movement restrictions have been lifted from most farms". That condition is certainly far from being fulfilled at the moment, and there is little or no prospect that it will be more likely to be fulfilled in June than at the beginning of May. The fourth proposed test is that the trend in new cases of the disease is clearly downward.

In addition to those provisions, the new clause suggests that the Bill should allow the making of orders that may include such consequential, transitional or supplementary provision as the Secretary of State considers appropriate, and in particular may include provision for the postponement of a local government election to fill a casual vacancy which falls to be held after 7th June 2001".

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

Can the hon. Gentleman explain why a by-election was called in Carlisle after foot and mouth disease was discovered in Cumbria? The Conservative candidate in the election is the agent of the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean).

Mr. Hawkins

I understand that the hon. Gentleman is sensitive about the prospect of further political losses in his constituency. Of course, he represents a city constituency in which, as I recall it, his party made sweeping losses and mine made sweeping gains.

However, we are debating serious proposals that would provide the flexibility that is needed. We know that neither the Prime Minister nor any other Minister can say with confidence that the position on foot and mouth will be any better in early June than in early May. That is why the new clause is so vital. We believe that the Bill should provide the flexibility for the Government to think again.

I know that many hon. Members wanted to speak on Second Reading about the postponement period, but were unable to do so. As this debate is also subject to a ridiculously short guillotine, it is incumbent upon me to be brief. We want a number of questions to be answered, but I anticipate that other hon. Members will want to speak about the new clause and amendments, so I shall conclude my remarks.

Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central)

I want briefly to comment on the new clause, which goes to the heart of the argument about flexibility that featured during our Second Reading debate. I hope that in doing so the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), who is not in his place, will not regard me as a craven lickspittle, which was the phrase he used when we were discussing the allocation of time motion a little earlier today.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) said on Second Reading, postponement of fixed-term elections is a serious matter that should be contemplated only in very serious circumstances. I think that there is consensus throughout the House that foot and mouth constitutes such a circumstance, especially in some parts of the country. I am afraid, however, that I cannot support the new clause for two reasons.

First, there has to be a balance of judgment about the degree of delay. Although it is proper for consideration to be given to the problems that are created by foot and mouth, there is an argument about normality. One of the powerful cases made by the Opposition in debates and on statements about foot and mouth recently is about the need to return a sense of normality to the rest of the country, particularly for the tourism industry. It is reasonable to weigh up the balance between the problems that foot and mouth creates and the need for normality, given that we are taking a serious step in proposing to postpone fixed-term elections.

The second issue is one of principle, and it is my real objection to the new clause. If we are to defer fixed-term elections, there should be absolute certainty about the date to which we propose to postpone them. I do not think that we should pass legislation that makes it easier for any Government, even one whom I support, to return to the House and say that they wish to postpone the elections further.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Does the hon. Gentleman realise that the only reason for our tabling the new clause is that the Government have chosen 7 June, a perilously close date on which it is likely, on all predictions, that the foot and mouth epidemic will still be at its height? If the Government had chosen a significantly later date, the hon. Gentleman would not need to make this speech.

Mr. Benn

I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but this is a question of judgment and I think that it is reasonable to delay the elections until 7 June. We are debating the new clause, however, and the problem is that it would mean that if the Government could argue that the four objective tests on foot and mouth disease—with great respect, I must say that some of them are rather subjective—had not been met, they would have the power to postpone the local government elections until any date they cared to name, with no end date. That cannot be right, and for that reason the House should not support the new clause.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I would go further and say that it is vital for democracy that there be a clear date for the elections and that it should not be long after the original date of 3 May. As I said earlier, consideration of any further delay should take place only in an extreme case.

There are two other reasons why the new clause should not be accepted. It allows for the possibility of different election dates in different parts of the country. Elections might be delayed in some council areas but go ahead in others, and that would lead to many problems. It would significantly erode the democratic principle. People in areas where elections were delayed would know what had happened in elections in other parts of the country. That raises all sorts of questions about the national campaigning that takes place during local elections impacting on some parts of the country but not on others.

The new clause is based on a spurious attempt to suggest that there are clear, objective criteria for defining when foot and mouth disease is under control in a particular and, in some cases, small area. Four standards are proposed. Do hen. Members believe that in some of the relatively small council areas that we are talking about it would be possible to make a clear, objective judgment about whether, for example, the geographical spread of the disease had been reversed in that area?

The new clause smacks of a Conservative party that is concerned about the success of candidates in a particular area. Some Tories may try to argue that the disease has not been reversed in their council area, whereas others who expect to do well will suggest that it has been reversed. I do not believe that there can be clearly defined, objective criteria on when the outbreak is under control. Such criteria could possibly be provided on a nationwide basis, although I have reservations about that, but I do not believe that that could be defined for small areas. We need a clear and specified date that is relatively soon.

9.15 pm
Mr. Waterson

It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman seems to share the Prime Minister's obsession with 7 June as a date for the elections. How bad would circumstances have to be for his party to argue in due course that the 7 June date is inappropriate?

Mr. Foster

I have already made it clear that I believe that the Prime Minister made the right decision to defer the timing of the election for a short period. The foot and mouth outbreak would have to be significantly worse than predicted, and worse than it is likely to be, before I would even remotely contemplate supporting a further delay. The democratic process is vital. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me that, if we continued to delay week after week and month after month, we would create uncertainty and it would send out a clear signal that this country was closed for business. That would have a serious impact on small businesses and the tourism industry, about which many people are concerned.

For the three reasons I have given, I hope that the House will reject the amendment, and that we will still have some time for a Third Reading debate. That will enable the Minister to answer the many points that have been put to him, but to which he has not had time to reply.

Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale)

I want to put the point of view from my constituency. It is a huge rural constituency in Scotland, and is one of the 10 largest—it is more than 600 square miles. I well understand the reason for this legislation, and the dilemma that the Government and the Prime Minister were in last week. I did not envy him his task in making that decision, and I do not envy him having made it. I support his decision, because he made it in the national interest. He certainly made it in the interest of a huge rural constituency that contains a large farming community and an equally large tourist industry.

The decision was fine, and it had to be made. We had to strike a balance, and give priority to dealing with the foot and mouth outbreak while looking after the national interest, the general economy and the tourist industry in particular.

Having said that, now that we have had to change the date of the elections, and because there is an understanding, an inference or an assumption that there may also be a general election on 7 June, I believe that it was a missed opportunity to consider turnouts in general elections, which is of interest to right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House.

I could be accused of having a sell-interest in what I am about to propose. I tabled an amendment to move the date of the elections from 7 to 10 June. I had two reasons for doing that. First, it would enable us to see whether we could improve the turnout by having elections at weekends instead of mid-week. My second reason was out of self-interest. We have an honourable tradition in my constituency on the Thursday in June known as Lanark Lanimer day. That may sound like a local or constituency issue, but people come home to Lanark and Clydesdale from all over the world to attend the celebrations, and they have been cancelled on three or four occasions. They had to be postponed on 11 June 1987, the day on which I was elected, and that may happen again this time.

Mr. Tyler

Perhaps I can reassure the hon. Gentleman. The last general election took place on 1 May, a date on which people from all over the world come to Padstow in my constituency for the "'obby 'oss" celebrations. On that occasion, we simply told everyone that their votes would count more if they reached the polling stations before 11 am, because after that time they might be—in one way or another—incapacitated. It worked like a dream: we had a 60 per cent. poll by 11 am.

Mr. Hood

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is saying that he supports my wish to protect Lanimer day in Lanark on 7 June, but I assure him that it is impossible to organise such a day in my constituency and deal with a general election at the same time.

I made that point from a constituency point of view. I strongly support the way in which the Government are dealing with the crisis in the rural communities. I hesitate to criticise our media, but let me issue a sincere and constructive criticism. The media are the first to tell politicians when we are talking down the national interest, and the first to lecture us in that regard. It is important for them to report the facts, but I have seen the same cows burn for three weeks on the same television station. I have seen the same pictures of corpses that were killed and disposed of three or four weeks ago. Throughout the media, an image is being presented that is far worse than the reality.

I believe that the Government are dealing with the situation as best they can, and that that is acceptable. Our media should be responsible: they should report the facts, but they should also support the Government's action in looking after the national economy and saving our rural communities and the tourism industry in those communities. If they do so, they will serve not only the democracy that we are discussing, but industry and the country.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

I congratulate my colleagues on new clause 1, although I do not think that it is perfect. I am sure they will accept that, and also accept the argument of the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) that it contains an element of open-endedness. It is always less than desirable for the House to place too much power in the hands of the Government of the day, especially this Government. I am looking at the Minister now. We know how well the Government can abuse the power that resides in their hands if we do not hold them to account.

Having said that, I still believe that my colleagues have done the House a service in drawing up, in a very short time, a detailed new clause that seeks to address the real problem we face. Although the Bill is designed to deal specifically with local elections, in my case the Hampshire county council elections, all Members of Parliament know—and, even if we are not prepared to acknowledge it, everyone outside the House knows—that what we are talking about is, potentially, the date of the next general election. There is no point in our deceiving ourselves in that regard.

I think that what we are doing by means of the new clause is helping the Government, particularly the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, to fulfil the commitment that they gave the country on Monday. We know that the whole country was geared up—certainly, the media and the party political machines were—for local elections on 3 May. We know that plans had been made for a general election, but there was grave disquiet in the country. If we as politicians had been seen to be putting ourselves first and failing to give 100 per cent, effort to the campaign to eradicate the tragic disease of foot and mouth, which is causing such misery and anguish in rural communities, the Government would have paid a heavy penalty at the polls, local and national. It was for that reason that the Prime Minister made a judgment, assisted by Mr. Trevor Kavanagh and the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) no doubt, that such was the gravity of the situation in our rural communities that the local elections at least should be put off.

The point that I want to make is not a novel one; it has been made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. If the Government follow the logic of their argument, they have impaled themselves and boxed themselves into a corner—if I may mix my metaphors—by inserting 7 June in the Bill.

On Monday, the Home Secretary told us that there was a need, as the hon. Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood) said, to keep the country open. The Home Secretary went on: On the other side of the equation, however, is the need for national and, in some areas, local politicians to be focused on the fight against foot and mouth disease as the necessary machinery to deal with any eventuality is put in place; and the feelings and sensitivities of people in the communities most severely affected by that dreadful disease."—[Official Report, 2 April 2001; Vol. 366, c. 21.] By the mechanism of the new clause, my right hon. and hon. Friends have provided four objective tests. I submit that those tests are a darn sight more objective than the five economic tests that the Government have set up as Aunt Sallies for the scrapping of the pound, and they are four reasonably objective tests. Clearly, they are not 100 per cent. watertight, but, if come the beginning or middle of May there is still no improvement in the terrible foot and mouth epidemic, how on earth can the Government possibly proceed with local elections and—the subtext—the general election? The same conditions will apply that applied on Monday when the Prime Minister gave his presidential address outside No. 10 to tell the nation rather than the House that he was putting the national interest before party interest.

We are trying to help the Government because if there is no significant improvement, if the tests are not met come 4, 5, 8 or 14 May, the Prime Minister will be left marooned on a sandbank. He will have no get-out by which to postpone the elections on 7 June. Far from being in the interests of the Conservative party, the new clause offers the Government a way out. It certainly offers the Prime Minister—we know how resentful most of his Back Benchers are at his solo decision—a way out.

The hon. Member for Leeds, Central identified the risk in the new clause. That is a risk that the Opposition are prepared to accept. We believe that it would be wrong to put party before country. We must put country first and not party. The duty of politicians is to focus our every endeavour on eradicating the disease. The Opposition have by the new clause provided a mechanism by which the Government can do that.

If the Government do not accept the new clause, and the epidemic does not relent, they will stand accused of having failed to listen to the arguments and to take advantage of a flexible mechanism by which they could have continued to bend every sinew to ensure that the disease was eradicated, rather than committing themselves irrevocably to holding a series of local elections, and indeed a general election, on 7 June.

9.30 pm
Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

I am happy to follow the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), because the debate is in part about something dear to his heart: the constitutional nature of our political arrangements. The new clause would introduce a remarkable constitutional innovation: that the blisters around a sheep's mouth and the sores around a cattle hoof should determine whether democratic elections take place. I have searched Bagehot and the constitutional histories available in the Library, and nowhere is it stated that the condition of agricultural livestock should be the variable factor determining the movable feast of when elections take place.

The conditions in paragraphs (a) to (d) read as though they have been downloaded from an old MAFF website. We welcome the conditions that the geographical spread of the disease has been reversed"; that movement restrictions have been lifted from most farms"; and that the trend in new cases of the disease is clearly downward". We are perhaps less keen on the condition suggesting that opinion polls should show significant gains for the Conservative party.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) put his finger on it when he said that it was a matter of political judgment. It is a tribute to the flexibility of our constitution that the Prime Minister could take the decision that he took and listen to the nation. Judging from the parliamentary Labour party meeting this morning, he did so with pretty much the unanimous support of Labour Members of Parliament.

I asked some friends in the United States what it would take for any American election to be postponed or varied. Would it happen if "The X-Files" proved to be true; if aliens landed; or if the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) became an American citizen? I asked them whether, if any such natural disaster befell the American people, elections would be suspended. They listened in complete incomprehension. We should take cognisance of the fact that, in putting off an election even for one month, we are probably alone in the democratic world.

I am certainly happy, at this time of night, when no one is taking a great deal of notice, to make the argument for fixed-term Parliaments, which would obviate completely the discussions that we have been having in the past few weeks.

Hon. Members will have heard the alarming news that a large number of tuberculosis cases have been reported at a school in Leicester, and that the local medical authorities talked of a virulent disease that could spread rapidly, even beyond the confines of the school. All animals with foot and mouth get better, and it poses no human health risk, so were I a Leicester parent, I would be asking why obsessive media attention has been concentrated in recent weeks on the fact that hundreds of thousands of our cows and sheep have caught a very nasty cold, with foot and mouth ulcers.

We have suspended elections and the House has been utterly pre-occupied with that, whereas I suspect that children and parents in Leicester are in very great fear. Their situation, however, has commanded not nearly the same attention as the elections have received from the gentlemen of the press in the Gallery and from Conservative Members.

Mr. Bercow

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is really rather an endearing specimen in the House in that he is almost invariably off message, despite the fact that he is on the payroll vote. When he is on message, however, it seems to be only by accident. Will he confirm that he is profoundly opposed to any postponement, as seems to be the subtext of his remarks today, and that even if the foot and mouth contagion dramatically worsened in the next four weeks, he would still want all elections to go ahead? That is the burden of the position that is being expressed by a Parliamentary Private Secretary to a Minister.

Mr. MacShane

All I can say to the hon. Gentleman, as always, is react my lips—or rather my speech in tomorrow's Hansard, where my meaning will be perfectly plain. He may like me to repeat what I have just said, but I am sure that the occupant of the Chair would not. Nevertheless, one of the pleasures of debating with the equally endearing hon. Gentleman is that, regardless of how often hon. Members tell him that one and one are two, he pops up and insists that they are one and a half or three or four or five, or that in any case it is all a European plot to take over the British arithmetic system. I therefore invite him to read tomorrow's Hansard.

The borough of Rotherham in which my constituency lies is 65 per cent, rural and there was great concern when,over the weekend, a foot and mouth case was reported. Fortunately, however, it turned out to be a false alarm. Nevertheless, 283 sheep in one herd were slaughtered, to the great anger of the farmer, and a local country park was closed. I am talking to Rotherham borough council about reopening the park because I think that many of our municipal authorities have grossly over-reacted to the situation. At times they want to be a little more Whitehall than Whitehall and a little more jobsworth than jobsworth, but it is time that our countryside was reopened.

Earlier, in describing what I think he said was his 600 square mile constituency in Lanarkshire, my hon. Friend the Member for Clydeidale (Mr. Hood) commented on whether people could vote. One matter that has received very little attention or publicity in this debate on when the general election might or might not be held is the quiet revolution that has occurred in democratic accessibility. The Government can be rightly proud of wiping away all the bureaucratic obstacles to obtaining a postal vote.

I do not know whether you vote any more, Mr. Speaker. I think that, constitutionally, you are still allowed to vote—although I know that you are now above such minor things as ballot boxes. Nevertheless, you, me, the Prime Minister, every hon. Member and every one of our voting citizens no longer has to go to a voting booth before 11 am or after 11 am—intoxicated by the rhetoric of Liberal Democrat candidates or otherwise—or wait until the evening to cast a vote. Now, every one of our citizens can apply for a postal vote without a cross-signature from a doctor or anyone else and cast a vote without going to a voting booth.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)—who has left the Chamber—is a great admirer of American elections, and I have had very profitable discussions with him about the American political system. In the state of Oregon, people can vote only by post. I think that, in due course, perhaps in new Labour's third or fourth term, we will be able to move to electronic voting and to cast our vote in many different ways. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Buckingham is interrupting again from a sedentary position, as is his wont. He will become a virtual Member of Parliament—small, perfectly formed, and for ever available on dot.com from Conservative central office.

I hope that there is no more cant from Conservative Members about shifting the election on 7 June off to the Greek calends. The people of this country accept that foot and mouth must be tackled. However, at the risk of making special pleading, I must tell the House that thousands of my constituents are steelworkers, and they face a bleak and miserable family future. The Conservatives utter not a word of sympathy or concern about them, and neither do their puppet masters in the press.

My steelworker constituents may ask themselves whether the constitution can be changed and elections postponed so that their needs can be considered and met. I tell them that that cannot be done. Winston Churchill went to Potsdam in May 1945 and came back a defeated Prime Minister. That great treaty was concluded by Clement Attlee, and in those days the British people—the voters of Rotherham and Buckingham—did not let a little thing like an unfinished world war stop an election.

We should have the election on 7 June. We need no more cant and excuses, nor any more cynical new clauses that are merely a way to delay matters in the interest of one party. In the next term, or in the third or fourth Labour term, we should examine the idea of fixed-term Parliaments and the matter of making postal voting and other forms of voting more accessible.

No matter what disaster befalls our nation, our strength lies in holding elections and in being the world's oldest democracy. We should not put off people's right to vote when the time comes.

Sir Patrick Cormack

The hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) is an amiable cove, as my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) charitably christened him. He has a wonderful gift for verbal dexterity, as he can talk about nothing at inordinate length. However, I have never in my life heard so much codswallop spoken in 10 minutes.

The speech by the hon. Member for Rotherham would have been amusing and diverting had he not trivialised an extremely important matter. His reference to a herd of sheep summarised his notions and knowledge of the countryside. From now on, I shall think of him as the cows' shepherd—hut I will not be led by him. [Interruption.] If impertinence, discourtesy and lack of chivalry have been demonstrated, it was by the gesture that the hon. Gentleman just made, not by my joke. That is typical of the triviality with which we are dealing this evening.

The hon. Member for Rotherham mentioned news of tuberculosis in Leicester. I had not heard that news, which is, of course, very serious. I am sure that all hon. Members take it seriously. However, the hon. Gentleman went on to try and develop an argument from that, and to make the extrapolation that foot and mouth was no more serious than a common cold.

I should like to take the hon. Member for Rotherham to my constituency, and introduce him to some of the people there who are suffering. I should like him to meet the farmer who rang yesterday to tell me that he had a very modest income of £14,000 a year, and that he got it in three tranches. He said that the first tranche came when he sold his spring lambs, the second when he sold cows at Christmas, and that the third came at harvest time when he sold produce from his fields. This year, my farmer will get nothing from his spring lambs. They do not have foot and mouth, but they cannot be moved or sold, so my farmer has no income; nor is he eligible for any help from the state.

9.45 pm

I rang up the Inland Revenue's famous hotline and was told that his case could not be dealt with until July. I would like to take the hon. Member for Rotherham to meet that farmer. I would like him to meet the farmer's four children and his wife. I would like him to meet some of the other people who are afflicted and distressed by this most terrible scourge.

I have a very high regard for the hon. Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood), not least because my son stood in the Scottish parliamentary election in his constituency. He is a chivalrous gentleman, who is rightly admired by his constituents. That was quite apparent when we walked around the constituency. He has an understanding of both the urban and the rural communities.

The hon. Member for Rotherham should be thoroughly ashamed of himself: he should be cringing as I speak. All over this country, in Devon, Cumbria and Staffordshire— where, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) knows, there are 44 cases of foot and mouth—there are people whose lives' work is being burned before their eyes. There are people whose families do not know where the next bread will come from. There are people in rural communities whose businesses—some third, fourth or fifth generation—are collapsing.

Mr. MacShane

What about the election?

Sir Patrick Cormack

It is because there is some recognition of this plight that the Prime Minister—belatedly, I believe—came round to the view that it would be an insult to those people to go to the country with any sort of election on 3 May. The Prime Minister's decision is entirely right and has the wholehearted support of the Conservative party.

Mr. Gapes

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Patrick Cormack

I should just like to develop this point and then perhaps I will.

I tabled an amendment in Committee that was very similar to this new clause. It could not be debated because there was not enough time, Mr. Speaker, and you know why. You were very kind and said that manuscript amendments could be accepted on Report, which is why we are having this debate now. We have tabled the amendments to tell the Prime Minister that we welcome what he has done but do not think that he has recognised quite what a crisis this is. He is saying that the disease is not under control so that we cannot go to the country, locally or nationally, on 3 May. We are simply asking how he can be so certain that the disease will be under control on 7 June.

Mr. Gapes

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Patrick Cormack

Just a minute. If the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn), who made a brief but sensible speech, had said that we ought to have gone for a date in July or September, Conservative Members might well have been content with that. We are not worried about the results of the county council elections, because every poll predicts that we shall do extremely well. That is not what concerns us. However, we are extremely worried that the country may still, in whole or in part, be in the grip of this dreadful disease on 7 June. If so, it would be as improper to go to the country then as it would on 3 May.

We are seeking to build some flexibility into the Bill, so that, by affirmative resolution, Parliament can move a date either for the whole country or for those parts of the country in which the disease is still rampant.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Does my hon. Friend share my suspicions that the Government are beginning to believe their own rhetoric? Is he aware that MAFF inspectors are saying to Members of Parliament—perhaps they are saying it to him, as they are certainly telling me—that they believe that the position in Staffordshire now is as it was in Cumbria three and a half to four weeks ago?

Sir Patrick Cormack

I am extremely sorry that my hon. Friend has to say that. He is right: we are all worried in Staffordshire. In one village in my constituency 10 days ago there were piles of dead and rotting sheep for three days, waiting to be disposed of in five or six fields. Some people were going to look at them, taking their dogs to look at them and doing all sorts of other macabre and stupid things. Yes, it does worry us.

I hope that the disease will be under control by 7 June. I hope that there will be no need for further movement of the election date, but anyone who attended the presentation that the Minister of Agriculture kindly arranged in the Grand Committee Room today must have come away feeling worried by some of the things that we heard. If those predictions are right, it would be grossly improper to go to the country.

Mr. Hilary Benn

The hon. Gentleman is arguing that 7 June may be too soon, but if they feel that, would it not have been better for the Opposition to have tabled an amendment that named a single alternative date rather than an amendment that leaves it to the Government of the day to decide the date, which could be months or, technically, years ahead?

Sir Patrick Cormack

The hon. Gentleman knows that it could not be years ahead. It could be the autumn—I do not know. We believe that it should be reasonably open ended because of the severity of the outbreak, which has now topped 1,000 cases.

Mr. Gapes

Was the hon. Gentleman in favour of an immediate general election last September, as called for by his leader, when my constituents were suffering from the effects of the blockades that were encouraged by the Opposition?

Sir Patrick Cormack

I was not in favour. I am on the record as not having been in favour of an election in February 1974 or June 1987. This is the one issue on which I agree this evening with the hon. Member for Rotherham. I personally believe in fixed-term Parliaments.

I am not in favour of setting in stone a date that may well be wholly unsuitable when the countryside is still bleeding. I finish where I began, with the hon. Member for Rotherham. I hope that he will look not just at the statistics but at the human misery behind those statistics. I hope that he will have real cause not to grin like an inane nonentity but to appreciate just what a crisis the countryside is in.

Mr. Mike O'Brien

Foot and mouth disease is indeed harrowing for those farming areas that are directly affected. I represent a rural area, and yesterday animals were being culled in my area of Warwickshire. However, it is not just a local issue for those farming areas directly affected. It is a national problem. It is important that parliamentarians can come together to express support for those in the farming and tourism industries who are most directly affected. The Government have been careful in seeking to balance the need to ensure that Ministers and the Prime Minister can focus on foot and mouth disease and the need to ensure that people have a chance to vote for their local representatives. It is a serious matter to postpone elections.

Mr. Hawkins

In the light of what he has just said, responding with appropriate seriousness to the matter, will the Minister take the opportunity publicly to dissociate himself from the disgraceful remarks made by the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane)?

Mr. O'Brien

Hon. Members will have heard my expressions of concern about foot and mouth disease and can draw their own conclusions. My hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) is someone who adds to debates in the House, is often controversial, and expresses views which others may not dare to express. That is what the people of Rotherham elect him to do—to speak out and say what he thinks. He does so with great care for the people of Rotherham. I commend him for speaking in that way, but I also have my own views which may not always agree with his.

We need to ensure that we treat these matters with care. Parliament indicated that it wanted certainty as to the date of local government elections; the legislation will set out that certainty.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. O'Brien

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall not give way; we have limited time and I have a series of points to make. I have been generous in taking interventions on previous occasions.

Our judgment on the balance between the democratic right of people to vote for their local representatives and the need to recognise the concerns of the farming community especially, but also of the tourist industry, has led us to the conclusion that we need a postponement of the 3 May elections. I am pleased with the general support in the House for that.

We also believe that there is a need for certainty as to the date on which that election will take place. The amendments and new clauses all seek the same objective: to remove the fixed date till which the local elections have been deferred.

There are a number of reasons why it is not a good idea to leave that date open. First, we should carefully consider the interpretation that would be placed on the decision to delay indefinitely the local elections on people who may be considering visiting the United Kingdom from abroad, or indeed on our home-grown tourist industry. It is in the interests of every citizen—town arid country dwellers—and not least of those farmers who have diversified into other areas of business that rely on the tourist trade, that we restore confidence in our tourism as quickly as possible.

New clause 1, which would allow the elections to take place on different dates in different counties, is particularly unfortunate in that regard. Hon. Members should imagine the message that would go out to potential tourists from abroad: "You can go to Dorset, but not to Wiltshire which is still closed. Somerset will open next month." That would do nothing to restore confidence in this country as a destination.

Secondly, we must take into account the position of councillors who intend to stand down at the next election. Although it is reasonable to expect most of them to accept a short delay, it most certainly is not reasonable to expect them to continue in office with no idea of when their term of office will cease, leaving them unable to make plans for the future. Of course, a councillor may resign his office at any time, and the Government are grateful in the expectation that most councillors will accept a short extension of their term of office—as envisaged in the Bill. However, it would be quite unfair to prevail on their good will, as an open-ended deferral of local elections would do.

The third reason relates to democracy. Given some of the past actions of the Conservatives in abolishing democratically elected local institutions, it is no surprise that democracy may not be at the forefront of their minds. However, it is not right for the political make-up of councils to be determined by the vagaries of carrying unfilled vacancies, so that local people have no idea when they can restore the council that they have chosen, or choose a different one. They will have no certainty as to the date when they could do that. That would be wrong. A councillor might die or retire; the balance of the council would change, contrary to the will of the electorate, but nothing could be done for a prolonged period—until all the conditions set out in the new clause were met. That is not the right way to proceed.

All the points that I have set out illustrate the importance of certainty as to when local elections will be held. Those hon. Members who have put their names to the proposal to postpone the elections until specific conditions for controlling and eradicating foot and mouth disease are met on an area-by-area basis are proposing a recipe for local government chaos. I make that point in sadness: Parliament would regularly have to turn its attention needlessly to when a local election could take place in a given locality. That is not a serious way to proceed.

Certainty is what Parliament called for in local elections; certainty is what our Bill will provide. I therefore ask the Opposition to withdraw the new clause; or if they do press it to a Division, I would ask my hon. Friends to vote against it.

Mr. Hawkins

I have no intention of withdrawing the motion. We wish to press it to a Division because we feel extremely strongly that the new clause is needed, as it would introduce the required element of flexibility.

It being Ten o'clock, MR. SPEAKER put the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour, pursuant to Order [this day].

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 120, Noes 336.

Division No. 179] [10 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Butterfill, John
Arness, David Cash, William
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Chope, Christopher
Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James Clappison, James
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Clifton—Brown, Geoffrey
Baldry, Tony Collins, Tim
Bercow, John Cormack, Sir Patrick
Beresford, Sir Paul Gran, James
Blunt, Crispin Davies, Quentin (Grantham)
Boswell, Tim Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice)
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Day, Stephen
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia Donaldson, Jeffrey
Brady, Graham Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen
Brazier, Julian Duncan, Alan
Browning, Mrs Angela Duncan Smith, Iain
Burns, Simon Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Evans, Nigel May, Mrs Theresa
Fabricant, Michael Moss, Malcolm
Fallon, Michael Nicholls, Patrick
Forth, Fit Hon Eric Ottaway, Richard
Fraser, Christopher Paice, James
Gale, Roger Paterson, Owen
Garnier, Edward Pickles, Eric
Gibb, Nick Prior, David
Gill, Christopher Randall, John
Gillan, Mrs Cheryl Robathan, Andrew
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Green, Damian Roe. Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Greenway, John Ross. William (E Lond'y)
Grieve, Dominic Ruffley, David
Gummer, Rt Hon John St Aubyn, Nick
Hague, Rt Hon William Sayeed, Jonathan
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie Simpdon, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Hammond, Philip Smyth Rev Martin (Belfast S>
Hawkins, Nick Soames, Nicholas
Hayes John Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Heald, Oliver Spicer, Sir Michael
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David Spring, Richard
Hora[...], John Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot) Swayne, Desmond
Jack, Rt Hon Michael Syms, Robert
Jackson, Robert (Wantage) Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Key Robert Taylor, John M (Solihull)
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater) Taylor, Sir Teddy
Kirkbride, Miss Julie Thomas, Simon (Ceredigion)
Kirkbride, Miss Julie Thompson, William
Lait, Mrs Jacqui Tredinnick, David
Leigh, Edward Trend, Michael
Letwin, Oliver Tyrie, Andrew
Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E) Viggers, Peter
Lilley, Rt Hon Peter Walter, Robert
Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham) Waterson, Nigel
Llwyd, Elfyn Wells, Bowen
Loughton, Tim Whrttingdale, John
Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
MacGregor, Rt Hon John Wilkinson, John
McIntosh, Miss Anne Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
MacKay, Rt Hon Andrew Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Maclean, Rt Hon David Young, Rt Hon Sir George
McLoughlin, Patrick
Madel, Sir David Tellers for the Ayes:
Mates, Michael Mr. James Gray and
Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian Mr. Peter Luff.
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N) Blunkett, Rt Hon David
Ainger, Nick Boateng, Rt Hon Paul
Allen, Graham Bradley, Keith (Withington)
Anderson, Rt Hon Donald (Swansea E) Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)
Bradshaw, Ben
Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms Hilary Brinton, Mrs Helen
Ashton, Joe Browne, Desmond
Atherton, Ms Candy Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Atkins, Charlotte Buck, Ms Karen
Austin, John Burden, Richard
Bailey, Adrian Burgon, Colin
Banks, Tony Burstow, Paul
Barnes, Harry Caborn, Rt Hon Richard
Barron, Kevin Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth)
Battle, John Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Bayley, Hugh Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies (NE Fife)
Beard, Nigel
Beith, Rt Hon A J Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Bell, Martin (Tatton) Campbell—Savours, Dale
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C) Cann, Jamie
Benn, Rt Hon Tony (Chesterfield) Casale, Roger
Bennett, Andrew F Caton, Martin
Bermingham, Gerald Cawsey, Ian
Best, Harold Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)
Blackman, Liz Chaytor, David
Blears, Ms Hazel Clapham, Michael
Blizzard, Bob Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)
Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands) Harvey, Nick
Healey, John
Clark, Paul (Gillingham) Heath, David (Somerfon & Frome)
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S) Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian) Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge) Hendrick, Mark
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Hepburn, Stephen
Clelland, David Heppell, John
Clwyd, Ann Hesford, Stephen
Coaker, Vernon Hinchliffe, David
Coffey, Ms Ann Hodge, Ms Margaret
Cohen, Harry Hood, Jimmy
Colman, Tony Hope, Phil
Connarty, Michael Hopkins, Kelvin
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Howarth, Rt Hon Alan (Newport E)
Corbett, Robin Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Corbyn, Jeremy Howells, Dr Kim
Corston, Jean Hoyle, Lindsay
Cotter, Brian Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)
Cousins, Jim Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Cranston, Ross Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)
Crausby, David Humble, Mrs Joan
Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley) Hutton, John
Cryer, John (Hornchurch) Iddon, Dr Brian
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'tiy S) Illsley, Eric
Curtis-Thomas, Mrs Claire Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Davey, Edward (Kingston) Jamieson, David
Davidson, Ian Jenkins, Brian
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)
Davis, Rt Hon Terry (B'ham Hodge H) Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)
Dawson, Hilton Jones, Rt Hon Barry (Alyn)
Denham, Rt Hon John Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Dismore, Andrew Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)
Dobbin, Jim Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)
Dobson, Rt Hon Frank Jowell, Rt Hon Ms Tessa
Donohoe, Brian H Joyce, Eric
Doran, Frank Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Dowd, Jim Keeble, Ms Sally
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey) Khabra, Piara S
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston) Kidney, David
Edwards, Huw Kilfoyle, Peter
Efford, Clive King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)
Ennis, Jeff King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)
Field, Rt Hon Frank Kumar, Dr Ashok
Fitzsimons, Mrs Loma Lawrence, Mrs Jackie
Flynn, Paul Laxton, Bob
Follett, Barbara Leslie, Christopher
Foster, Rt Hon Derek Levitt, Tom
Foster, Don (Bath) Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings) Lewis, Terry (Worsley)
Foster, Michael J (Worcester) Linton, Martin
Fyfe, Maria Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Galloway, George Lock, David
Gapes, Mike Love, Andrew
George, Andrew (St Ives) McAvoy, Thomas
George, Rt Hon Bruce (Walsall S) McCabe, Steve
Gerrard, Neil McCafferty, Ms Chris
Gibson, Dr Ian McCartney, Rt Hon Ian (Makerfield)
Gidley, Sandra
Gilroy, Mrs Linda McCrea, Dr William
Godsiff, Roger McDonagh, Siobhain
Golding, Mrs Llin Macdonald, Calum
Gordon, Mrs Eileen McDonnell, John
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E) McFall, John
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) McIsaac, Shona
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) McKenna, Mrs Rosemary
Grocott, Bruce Mackinlay, Andrew
Grogan, John MacShane, Denis
Hain, Peter Mactaggart, Fiona
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale) McWalter, Tony
Hall, Patrick (Bedford) McWilliam, John
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE) Mahon, Mrs Alice
Hancock, Mike Mallaber, Judy
Hanson, David Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Skinner, Dennis
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)
Martlew, Eric Smith, Angela (Basildon)
Maxton, John Smith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S)
Meacher, Rt Hon Michael Smith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale)
Merron, Gillian
Michael, Rt Hon Alun Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)
Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley) Smith, John (Glamorgan)
Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute) Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Miller, Andrew Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Mitchell, Austin Soley, Clive
Moffatt, Laura Spellar, John
Moonie, Dr Lewis Squire, Ms Rachel
Moran, Ms Margaret Starkey, Dr Phyllis
Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N) Steinberg, Gerry
Morris, Rt Hon Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley) Stevenson, George
Stewart, David (Inverness E)
Mountford, Kali Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Mudie, George Stinchcombe, Paul
Mullin, Chris Stoate, Dr Howard
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck) Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
Murphy, Rt Hon Paul (Torfaen) Straw, Rt Hon Jack
Norris, Dan Stringer, Graham
Oaten, Mark Stuart, Ms Gisela
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton) Stunell, Andrew
O'Brien, Mike (N Warks) Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
O'Hara, Eddie
Olner, Bill Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
O'Neill, Martin Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Öpik, Lembit Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Organ, Mrs Diana Temple-Morris, Peter
Paisley, Rev Ian Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Palmer, Dr Nick Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Pearson, Ian Timms, Stephen
Perham, Ms Linda Tipping, Paddy
Pickthall, Colin Todd, Mark
Pike, Peter L Tonge, Dr Jenny
Plaskitt, James Touhig, Don
Pollard, Kerry Trickett, Jon
Pond, Chris Truswell, Paul
Pope Greg Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Powell, Sir Raymond Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E) Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Turner, Neil (Wigan)
Prescott, Rt Hon John Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Prosser, Gwyn Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Purchase, Ken Tyler, Paul
Quinn, Lawrie Tynan, Bill
Vis, Dr Rudi
Radice, Rt Hon Giles Walley, Ms Joan
Rammell, Bill Wareing, Robert N
Rapson, Syd Watts, David
Raynsford, Nick Webb, Steve
Rendel, David White, Brian
Robertson, John (Glasgow Anniesland) Wicks, Malcolm
Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Robinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW)
Robinson, Peter (Belfast E) Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Rooker, Rt Hon Jeff Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Rooney, Terry Willis, Phil
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Wills, Michael
Rowlands, Ted Winnick, David
Ruane, Chris Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Ruddock, Joan Wood, Mike
Russell, Bob (Colchester) Woodward, Shaun
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester) Worthington, Tony
Sanders, Adrian Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Sarwar, Mohammad Wright, Tony (Cannock)
Sawford, Phil Wyatt, Derek
Sedgemore, Brian
Shaw, Jonathan Tellers for the Noes:
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert Mrs. Anne McGuire and
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S) Mr. Clive Betts.

Question accordingly negatived.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.