HL Deb 02 April 2001 vol 624 cc616-30

3.51 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows: "With permission, I should like to make a Statement about the decision to defer the local government elections which were due to take place next month.

"On 3rd May elections for 34 English county councils and 11 English unitary authorities were scheduled and just under a fortnight later, on 16th May, elections for 26 district councils in Northern Ireland were also due.

"The House will, however, be aware of the considerable scale of the representations which we have received to defer these elections because of foot and mouth disease.

"As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has now made clear, we have listened very carefully to those representations.

"We judge that in terms of practical arrangements, polling in May would be possible, and would produce fair results. Following changes to the law brought into force on 16th February, postal votes in England and Wales are now available on demand to any voter. With, literally, a handful of exceptions, schools in which many polling stations are sited have remained open and operational in all foot and mouth disease areas. Forms of canvassing have changed. Telephone canvassing is now a key way in which voters are contacted by candidates and the political parties.

"We have taken careful note of the impact on tourism, and the message which any lengthy or indeterminate deferral might send out. But on the other side of the equation, there has been 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 there have been the feelings and sensitivities of people in the communities most severely affected by this dreadful disease to be considered.

"Taking account of these considerations we have therefore decided that these local elections should be deferred for a short while—in the case of England and Wales, for a five week period from 3rd May to Thursday 7th June, and in the case of Northern Ireland, for a three week period. from 16th May, also to 7th June.

"Some district and borough council by-elections are due on 3rd May, and others could be held on each Thursday thereafter before 7th June. In these circumstances the Government believe it best if all by-elections in this period are also postponed until 7th June. In the timescale it is not practical to defer by-elections due before 3rd May.

"A Bill to ask this House, and the other place, to give effect to these deferrals will be introduced as soon as possible. As preparations for local elections on 3rd May and 16th May will have to continue until legislation for their deferral receives Royal Assent, it is plainly in everyone's interest that the legislation should be passed as quickly as possible.

"There are a number of detailed consequential matters which will have to be dealt with in the legislation. I shall therefore make arrangements for the opposition parties to have an outline of the draft legislation later today.

"The House will be aware that the cost of administering local elections falls on the local authorities concerned. In respect of the elections that were due to take place in May, local authorities have already incurred expenditure and will be obliged to go on doing so until the new Bill receives Royal Assent. We shall, accordingly, be taking powers in the Bill to compensate local authorities for expenditure legitimately and unavoidably incurred.

"Although nominations for the elections due on 3rd May do not close until tomorrow, some candidates may have incurred costs because of the deferral. These should be relatively small, but to cover this the maximum limit on candidates' expenses will be increased in the Bill by 50 per cent.

"The Bill will also provide that candidates validly nominated for elections due on 3rd May will not have to resubmit their nomination papers.

"Delaying elections is not a step to be taken lightly. Nevertheless, I hope the House will agree with me that a relatively short postponement of the kind I have set out is an appropriate response to the circumstances".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement made by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. Before I sit down, it may be for the convenience of the House if I make a few comments about the handling of the Bill in this House. I understand that the Bill will be introduced in the Commons tomorrow and will arrive in this House on Wednesday evening. It has been agreed through the usual channels that we shall have Second Reading on Thursday and the remaining stages of the Bill will be taken next Monday, 9th April. The business which has already been published for those two days will be postponed until after the Easter Recess.

3.56 p.m.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement today. As she rightly says, the decision to delay elections should not be lightly taken. We all agree with that.

However, the country will also be grateful that at long last the Prime Minister has come to acknowledge the gravity of the foot and mouth crisis. I assure the House that my party will co-operate in legislation that is required to postpone local elections and which will be a great relief to farmers in the affected areas and to those others right across the country who are living in fear of this disease.

The House will, of course, need time to scrutinise the legislation and some of the technical issues, including compensation, raised in the Statement. I am also grateful for the business statement that the noble Baroness has just made. I signal my agreement to it.

I welcome the fact that local authorities which have begun spending on elections will be compensated. But will the noble Baroness accept that legislation should be framed around taking the necessary powers to set a new date when it is clear it would be responsible to do so, rather than fixing one set date?

Can she say why it would be highly dangerous, as the Prime Minister said today, to delay local elections beyond 7th June but not beyond 3rd May? Would it not be more sensitive to country people to leave the election date open until it is clearer when the crisis might be resolved? Has she considered letting local elections go ahead earlier in some areas than in others in order not to burden people in the worst affected areas?

Does not all this demonstrate how out of touch the Prime Minister has been that it took appeals from the two most reverend Primates and the Leaders of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Parties before he was prepared to postpone his general election plans? Only last Thursday, the Leader of another place, Mrs Beckett and a stream of Cabinet colleagues said that to postpone local elections would send a, very strong and very negative signal to the world". Does not the Prime Minister's decision send such a signal? I assume that the noble Baroness thinks that it does not. If not, why not? What has changed since last Thursday? Has the Prime Minister suddenly woken up to the fact that the countryside is bleeding? Or was it simply that he had a visit from Mr Philip Gould and Miss Anji Hunter with their focus group reports?

While we acknowledge that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, has been working hard, is it not now clear that the Government have acted all along far too unimaginatively and far too late? Does not the noble Baroness agree that crucial time was lost in the first two weeks when, to keep open the option of an early general election, spin doctors were told to play down the crisis and the Minister boasted that it was under control?

Was not the failure to deploy the Army until nine days after we called for it a catastrophic delay? Was not that mistake compounded by the token nature of the early Army deployment? Why, despite the findings of the report by the Duke of Northumberland on the 1967 outbreak, did the Government persist in resisting burial and insist only on burning carcasses? Why was there such dithering about the concept of a firebreak of slaughter around acute outbreaks and why was action taken so slowly? What has it taken so long to reach a point of decision about vaccination? Indeed, when will the Government take a final decision on vaccination? Why did it take two weeks after we called for it for the Government to announce compensation for farmers and a week to announce rate relief for local businesses?

Ministers are right to say that industries other than farming, notably tourism, have been desperately affected by the crisis. What action do the Government intend to take to provide further support for the tourism industry? Will the noble Baroness allow a day, perhaps after the Easter Recess, for a debate in the House on the future of this vital national industry?

I hope that the noble Baroness will address one particular point. What will be the criteria for deciding to hold local elections in June when it was wrong to hold them in May? What will have to be different from today? Can she set out for the House the objective test that will make it safe to hold elections then when it is unsafe to hold them now? The Prime Minister said this morning that one of his key criteria was the feelings and sensitivities of local communities. For example, if people in Devon are still as worried in June, if the farmers in Curnbria are as threatened with ruin as they are today, will those factors no longer be relevant to the Prime Minister's thinking? If not, does that not suggest that the Prime Minister's decision is more about looking good to focus groups than looking good to the countryside?

When and on what criteria will the Prime Minister decide that he no longer has to give his full attention to the crisis? When will he think it right for key Ministers to turn their backs on the crisis and start electioneering? When and why will there no longer be the need, as the Statement says, for national and local politicians to be focused on fighting the disease? And when will it be right for local communities to lose their elected voices? I hope that the noble Baroness can tell the House, therefore, the criteria against which the Cabinet has agreed to take that decision and what makes June right and May wrong.

Finally, does the noble Baroness accept that the postponement of the election makes a mockery of the way in which her noble friend the Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms has been driving the House? The Government have been cutting corners in a drive to push too many Bills through before a May election. Now that Parliament is not, after all, to be cut short this Thursday, this House must be allowed to take the time it needs to review government Bills. On broader issues, will the noble Baroness promise time to debate the White Paper on rural affairs?

The Government's response to this crisis has veered from the complacent to the incompetent. No amount of spin can replace the wasted weeks or make good hopes and livelihoods broken or years of toil destroyed. But there is time now perhaps to make up with single-minded attention for the main failures in the Government's handling of the crisis so far. So long as the Prime Minister genuinely puts the country first, stops dithering and takes some of the overdue actions which we on this side of the House have long been calling for, he will have the support of the whole of this House. But no one will forgive a continuation of the incompetence, complacency and self-serving spin-doctoring that we have seen over the past few weeks and for which our countryside is now paying such a terrible price.

4.4 p.m.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

My Lords, from these Benches, I, too, thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement here. It is particularly appropriate to do so because there are now probably more noble Lords in this House than Members of the House of Commons with active or past service in local government. On Monday next, it will be appropriate to scrutinise the Bill carefully in Committee, Report and final stages to ensure that the expertise in this House is brought to bear on the detailed provisions.

I do not want to take part in another debate on the foot and mouth crisis and its tragic consequences or on rural affairs. These are very appropriate matters for the House to consider. However, at present we have before us a proposal for a Bill; and it is that Bill and the consequences for local government to which we should turn our minds.

In the Statement there is a plain admission that delaying elections is not a step to be taken lightly. That is what we should now focus on. Local elections have not been cancelled or postponed for over 50 years. I hope very much that postponement on this occasion will not be a precedent and that we shall wait at least another 50 years before it occurs again. The instrument of postponing democratic elections is well known in non-democratic countries. There is no fear that it is being done on that account now in this country. Nevertheless, fixed dates for elections, not to be changed by the government of the day whatever the circumstances, is a good principle. For that reason, I hope that the noble Baroness will make clear that it is not in this Government's mind that there shall be any repetition.

Inevitably, therefore, postponement should make us uncomfortable. But I should be even more uncomfortable if, as I understand the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, suggests, there were to be an open-ended commitment to local elections at an unspecified date in the future. That really would give the government of the day an opportunity which I think they should be denied. If governments have to make such a postponement, it is right that they should explain the position to the House and fix an alternative date which can be the subject of debate and not leave an open-ended commitment to hold elections when it may suit them best.

There has been a good deal of discussion—no one can complain about that—about whether the postponement of the elections, or holding them on 3rd May, would or would not be in the national interests or in the interest of any individual or political party. We must acknowledge that all those factors come into the minds of every Prime Minister faced with these very difficult decisions. It would be naïve to argue that Prime Ministers make decisions in the national interest except in so far as most of them identify the national interest with their own interest and that of their own parties. We should recognise that and not be hypocritical in present circumstances.

In the Statement, the arguments are put fairly for postponement of or carrying on with the 3rd May date. Indeed, if I were to weigh carefully in milligrams the arguments set out in the Statement I think that they marginally come down in favour of going ahead on 3rd May. But I think that that is a measures only of the dilemma in which the Prime Minister has been put. I agree that in the circumstances postponement makes the best sense.

I hope that the Bill will make progress. We shall help to see it through all its stages, provided—I make this absolutely clear—we are satisfied that the detail is right. In that respect, I make two suggestions. The first is that even in advance of Second Reading the noble Baroness and the Minister concerned seek to draw on the expertise of Members of this House who are willing to help get the Bill right before we enter Committee stage. Secondly, I hope that every step will be taken to ensure that the Home Office is on top of the detail and that clear, unequivocal statements are made by it and the appropriate departments to those in local government who will be affected by the outcome. I refer not only to elected members of local authorities but all those officials in local government who will have difficult decisions to make. The detail is important. The Home Office is not invulnerable in such matters. I hope that it will do better this time.

4.9 p.m.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for their recognition that this is a serious position and that a serious decision has been taken on the basis of the reasons that the Statement made very clear. The decision has been taken with great solemnity and a recognition of the seriousness of postponing democratic processes in this way.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, for his support for those parts of the Bill that he mentioned. He referred to the expertise available in this House that could lend authority to our discussions even before the Bill comes here for Second Reading. I am sure that the Government will seek to facilitate that arrangement. During the morning I have asked for a list of those Members of this House who are directly affected by or involved in local elections. The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, is right that several among our number are directly affected and that others who may not be directly involved in these circumstances have been elected and will be important in lending their authority to any discussions on the Bill, which we must get right quickly to facilitate the process.

I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, that this is not a time for another debate on foot and mouth. My noble friend Lady Hayman has reported regularly to this House with great authority and enormous attention to detail. I understand from my noble friend the Chief Whip that she has spoken six times on the subject in the past four weeks and, due to the efforts of the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, will do so again on Wednesday. I therefore do not intend to respond to the general points about the foot and mouth situation, except in so far as it impacts on the serious decision that has been taken today.

As I said, the criteria on which the decision was taken were set out in the Statement. A short delay enables certainty. That certainty affects the planning for local authorities and candidates involved in local elections and is also necessary across the broader spectrum for those in the farming community and in the wider sphere of economic activity who may be directly or indirectly affected by foot and mouth disease. It is agreed that 7th June strikes the right balance between a delay that enables the Government to accelerate and to put in place further strategies and mechanisms to halt and combat the disease—I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is aware that the Prime Minister has spent the greater part of his time on this problem in the past few weeks—and the uncertainties that would be caused by an open-ended delay. Again, I strongly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, that it would be extraordinary for anyone to argue more than superficially in this House that it should be within the power of the executive to determine the date of elections by order.

We welcome the renewed attention to legislation that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, promised from his Benches. The Government are delighted that already in this Session we have sent to the Commons eight major Bills without any defeats. We expect to continue to do the same in the additional weeks that are opened up to us.

It is not surprising that the Conservative Opposition should seek an open-ended delay and not to establish any date for elections. It is clear that they do not want an election at all.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, the noble Baroness talked about certainty, but until a few days ago there was certainty about the elections being on 3rd May. She did not answer my question about the criteria that were set for delaying that timetable. Is 7th June now set in stone, or will that timetable be subject to delays if the same circumstances are around a month from now?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I did not say this in my original reply because I thought that the point was self-evident, but the noble Lord has made the mistake of assuming that there is an obvious and immediate connection between the date of a local election, which has to be set in stone for the reasons that we have discussed, and the speculation that he is hoping to pursue about the possible date of any general election. This Statement does not mention general elections. The criteria for the local elections are set out in the Statement.

As the Statement says clearly, there is no practical reason why the elections should not be held in May. But the decision has been taken to postpone them in order to ensure that the massive upgrading of the practical means and resources necessary to deal with foot and mouth disease are finally and firmly put in place and to take into account the sensitivities of those who are combating the disease in what one might call the front line. Those are sufficient matters, but they are not practical matters. The practical point is that the local elections could be held on 3rd May, as originally intended.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, will my noble friend the Leader of the House recognise that the clarity of the Government's Statement will be well accepted in the county of Cheshire, where we have a strong agricultural sector? Will she further recognise that we have a strong tourism industry and that any lengthy or indeterminate deferral of the elections could have a poor effect on the success of the tourism industry? Does she recognise that we require certainty, not the flights of the imagination given to us by the Leader of the Opposition?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I hope that the Statement has made it clear, as my noble friend rightly suggests, that the concerns of the tourism industry are as important as the concerns of everybody else in other parts of the economy. I understand that the tourism industry has welcomed the certainty that my noble friend described. He is right that the open-ended uncertainty that the Leader of the Opposition seems to be suggesting as the appropriate way forward would cause great problems to everybody.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, the more that the Leader of the House says about 7th June, the more she makes the case for holding the elections on 3rd May. It seems that the House is not to know the reasons for the change because there are no reasons for it other than those of political judgment.

On behalf of local government on this side of the House, I certainly welcome the Statement, particularly the points of detail about nomination and expenditure rules. Those are important points, because expenditure on printing comprises about 90 per cent of total expenditure in local elections. I know from inquiries that I have made at the office of my association—even though I have long been separated from the electoral process—that its election addresses are already printed. The association is facing an acute problem of overprinting, or reprinting, or perhaps an add-on. We shall need to consider the appropriate level of increase in election expenditure for candidates carefully in empirical terms. I hope that the Leader of the House will assure us that the Government's mind is not yet fixed on the issue, because we need to look at it in practical terms.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords. I am grateful to the noble Lord, with his experience, for welcoming those parts of the Statement that refer to the practical details, which will be set out even more fully in the Bill than was possible in the Statement. That is one reason why my right honourable friend the Home Secretary is anxious that Members of the Opposition parties should have an opportunity to look at the draft legislation at the earliest possible stage.

I know that those who are concerned with local elections spend the greatest amount of their money on printing. As I understand it, not only will many candidates already have published and printed their elections addresses, but local authorities may have already printed ballot papers. There will be compensation arrangements on those very practical but none the less very important matters. The current draft proposals contain provisions to compensate local authorities and to raise the expenses limit for candidates by 50 per cent. As I said, that will be a matter for considerable discussion at local level.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

My Lords, I am grateful to the Leader of the House for her Statement today. I say that not just as a piece of parliamentary pleasantry but because, as a serving member of Suffolk County Council, I have a particular interest in the issue. I should like briefly to express in the strongest possible terms my opposition to the proposition made by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that there should be an open-ended delay. While of course I entirely agree with my noble friend Lord Rodgers that there are profound democratic implications, my opposition is rooted in the practicalities of attempting to run a council.

Of course, because councils know how their cycles work, they plan their business accordingly. All types of systems and processes, such as budget setting, structure planning, and so on, are in place, based entirely on the proposal that a new council will be formed in May. While local authorities may have the flexibility to deal with a one-month change in the election date, an open-ended delay will cause all kinds of difficulties for those authorities. That should not be underestimated.

My second and final point is that many hundreds of councillors will not be seeking re-election in May. They may be prepared to hang on for another month or so but, beyond that, real difficulties will arise for people who have made arrangements to move on in their lives. If the delay is open-ended, we face the danger that certain areas will, in effect, be unrepresented. I suggest that that is not a tenable position.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, because she is a Member of this House who speaks from practical experience of involvement in the local elections on this occasion. The points that she makes are, of course, entirely relevant to the Bill. I am sure that some councillors—I hope that they will be only a small minority—will not want to serve for the extra five weeks. That is the time period that would be entailed in terms of the English elections, and it would be slightly shorter in relation to Northern Ireland. As I understand it, those councillors can resign at any point. However, it is hoped that they will be in a minority.

It may be of help to the noble Baroness and to the House if I explain another matter that was raised concerning the serving of a full four-year term by councillors elected on 7th June. I believe that the position at present is that, as the alteration in the election date is a one-off change, councillors elected on 7th June will serve only three years and 11 months. That may also be relevant to councils' planning. However, councillors who intend to stand down at the election will remain in office until the new election date, except for, it is hoped, only a minority who wish to leave before then.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, although I have the utmost sympathy with the Prime Minister in his dilemma over these elections, I say to my noble friend that among some of my colleagues there will be much disappointment that the local elections are not to take place on 3rd May. I certainly do not believe that there is a case for putting off the elections. Over 90 per cent of the people involved are resident in urban and not country areas. However, I understand the dilemma.

Together with the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, I am concerned that a precedent may be set. I remind my noble friend that, even during the Falklands War, we did not put off the local elections. Therefore, so far as I can see, this is a most serious precedent. Although I am quite sure that the House will support these measures, I believe that we want some cast-iron assurances—I do not know how they can be given or whether they can be written into the Bill—that this is a one-off situation and that it will not be repeated, certainly by this Government. We want assurances that a Bill, or anything else, will not be drafted in such a way that a government of another political colour will be able to use it to their own advantage.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for raising again the historic significance and the seriousness of this decision. I can assure him that that was taken very much into account in coming to this particularly difficult decision. I agree that some local parties of all political persuasions would have been standing in readiness for the election which was about to take place but which was postponed. Having recently visited Swindon—my noble friend's parliamentary constituency when he was in another place—I know that his local party is in very good shape and is keen to undertake an election.

There will be disappointment. However, as I said, I believe that this serious, one-off decision was taken in accordance with the balance of concerns expressed in the Statement. Of course, my noble friend is right. The vast majority of areas in this country are still disease-free. I do not believe that we should underestimate the importance of that; nor, indeed, should we subscribe to the picture that is sometimes conveyed, for example, in television and radio coverage, of the whole country being devastated. Some areas are of course extremely badly affected, but the majority of the UK remains disease-free.

Lord Hurd of Westwell

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness to clear up a confusion which seems to have entered into these exchanges. She and several noble Lords have stressed the importance of setting an exact date, and the constitutional monstrosity of not setting an exact date, for the county elections. She went along with the argument of the noble Lord behind her that, from the point of view of tourism, it is as though the world is waiting to find out the date of the Cheshire County Council elections and that people's decisions on whether or not to come here depend on that.

However, does that not represent a lot of shadowboxing? Does not the message to the farming community, to the countryside and to the people who may come to this country from abroad—we hope that they will do so—depend on the date of the general election? With regard to that, we are, of course, in precisely the position about which the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, and the noble Baroness tut-tutted. The situation is an open-ended one in which the Prime Minister, without even bothering about an order, can decide the date. It is in relation to that that the criteria and the questions advanced by my noble friend are important.

As this is now a matter of public debate, and given the decision that the Prime Minister has taken today, are we not entitled to know a little more about the criteria on which he will choose the date of the general election? Given that the noble Baroness made it clear that there is no connection between what she said today and the date of the general election, can she lift the curtain a little on the really important decision?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am rather surprised that, with his extremely long experience in Cabinet government, the noble Lord, Lord Hurd of Westwell, should suggest that the setting of the date of the general election is something that can be arranged far in advance. He will know only too well that if a general election were to be called six months ahead, under the constitutional arrangements, which in this country are always somewhat more fluid than others might like, the machinery of government would, in a sense, almost grind to a halt. He will know that there is a period known in Whitehall circles as "purdah", and that during that period government cannot continue.

All the aspirations which the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and others advanced for continuing apace with the legislative programme, for continuing with the process of government and for doing what my right honourable friend the Prime Minister is most concerned about, which is to undertake the most significant and what he described as the "massive" upgrading of the effort against foot and mouth disease, would be inhibited.

Therefore, the noble Lord will know very well that it is the Prime Minister's prerogative, as it has been since time immemorial, not to announce the date of a general election and for the date of the general election to be, in a sense, disassociated even from the dissolution of Parliament. From the time that the Prime Minister goes to the Palace to invite Her Majesty the Queen to announce the date of the dissolution of Parliament, the machinery of government grinds down. I am sure that the noble Lord would not wish that to happen now.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, perhaps the noble Baroness will be able to help us on this matter. Is she saying that the local elections will take place on 7th June, whatever the situation and whether or not the foot and mouth outbreak is under control?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I can only—

Baroness Blatch

My Lords—

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I have not even given an answer yet. I do not see why the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, should intervene from a sedentary position. I can only repeat what I said in the Statement, which I believe is unequivocal. A Bill will be introduced to postpone the date of the local elections to 7th June. That Bill will be debated and have its Second Reading here on Thursday.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that if we had more speeches such as that of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, the case for something to occur earlier than 7th June would be very strong? However, the one serious point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers. Are the Government giving any consideration at all to removing the problems of the Prime Minister by having fixed-term elections? Is that in my noble friend's mind?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, whether or not that was in my mind is not relevant to whether or not it was in the Prime Minister's mind. I entirely take the point made by my noble friend Lord Barnett. Interestingly, he may remember that we discussed that matter at some length during the passage of the House of Lords Act. The Opposition were determined to castigate the Government over whether or not we should remove the Prime Minister's prerogative relating to the date of the general election. That, of course, was two years ago and it is not surprising that the position has since changed. I agree with my noble friend about the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. All 1 can say—1 apologise for repeating myself—is that I suspect that he does not wish there ever to be a general election.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, what consideration have the Government given to a postponement of the national census?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, the question of the national census has been examined and it has been agreed that it will go ahead at the end of April.

Earl Russell

My Lords, listening to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, I was reminded of the late lain Macleod's maxim that one does not shoot Santa Claus. Does the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal agree that a strong argument for what the Government have done is that one should not in a democratic society undertake electoral arrangements that do not enjoy the confidence of the opposition? Under these circumstances, does she agree that one might have expected a slightly more generous response from the Opposition? The fact that they introduced a number of extraneous matters leads me to wonder whether it would be relevant to mention, in relation to delays at the beginning of the outbreak, the reduction in the number of vets, which was referred to in the Anderson report. That reduction occurred largely under the previous government. Should we not be a little careful of each other's glasshouses?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, the noble Earl, as always, invites me to venture into complicated glasshouses. It is important to recognise that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said at the start of his remarks that he would support the measures being undertaken during the passage of the Bill. He said—his rights and responsibilities allow him to do this—that he might consider tabling amendments to the Bill but that he would not prevent the Bill receiving Royal Assent. The need to expedite that process is essential. Since the noble Earl mentions glasshouses, I am always rather amazed by the reaction of the party opposite when, in particular, my noble friend Lady Hayman gives a succession of extraordinarily authoritative and detailed statements. I compare that to the reaction to the work with which I was involved; that is, the response to the BSE episode some years ago.

Lord St John of Fawsley

My Lords, if the noble Baroness is looking for a generous response, will she accept one from me? It is given unofficially. I congratulate her on rediscovering an irenic form of discourse which she had forgotten in recent times. Does she agree that when a decision is taken in the national interest—when the national interest is put before party—that is likely to do more to restore public faith in the political process than any other act? Does she also agree that we should not descend to the level of the media and attribute the basest motives to everyone in political life?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am always very grateful for the support of the noble Lord, Lord St John of Fawsley, and for his personal and political generosity. In this instance, he has stepped aside, as he often does, from what can be described as the "soundbite" exchange and has raised more important matters. As I have said twice in response to noble Lords, this has been a serious decision, taken, as everyone recognises, in an unusual context. There have been few examples of such decisions having to be taken. The fact that the Prime Minister took that step is a symbol of his wish to undertake national leadership—the noble Lord suggested that that was appropriate—rather than to concentrate on party political issues.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the surprising fact about the Statement is that it does not rely for its motive on the compelling reasons advanced by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott. They do not appear in it. The principal reason given was 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". That ties the decision entirely to foot and mouth disease. Does the choice of a date a month ahead mean that that "necessary machinery" will finally be in place?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Elton, heard my right honourable friend the Prime Minister say this morning that he now has in place the mechanisms for a massive upgrading of the practical means and resources for dealing with the disease. He would obviously expect that to continue to have effect during the next three weeks. The Statement does not refer in detail to the points rightly raised by the noble Baroness simply as a result of the shortage of time. I am sure that the noble Lord will have noticed that those points have been addressed by the officials and Ministers concerned. That was why I was in a position to respond to the noble Baroness in the way I did.