HL Deb 05 April 2001 vol 624 cc914-55

3.37 p.m.

Brought from the Commons and on 4th April and printed pursuant to Standing Order 50, and read a first time.

Then, Standing Order 46 having been dispensed with (pursuant to Resolution of today).

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton)

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. Before I come to the substance of my opening speech, I should perhaps point out that one of the earlier editions of the speakers' list circulated today suggested that I would be responding to the debate for the Government. I am happy to advise the House that my noble and learned friend Lord Williams of Mostyn will be responding for the Government on this important Bill.

The purpose of the Bill is simple to understand. On 3rd May, local elections were due to have taken place in 34 English county councils and in 11 unitary authorities. Just under two weeks later, on Wednesday, 16th May, elections were due to have taken place in all 26 district councils in Northern Ireland. The Bill would postpone all of those elections to 7th June 2001, together with any by-elections to fill casual vacancies that would otherwise have taken place in the period 3rd May to 6th June.

I shall say a little more about the detailed provisions in the Bill in a moment, but it may be helpful to your Lordships if I were first to explain why we have decided to bring it forward. I am conscious that my noble friend the Leader of the House outlined some of our thinking on Monday when she repeated a Statement which had been made in the other place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, so I hope that I can be relatively brief.

The decision to postpone local elections is not one that we in government have taken lightly. As someone who, along with many of your Lordships, has a background in local government, I am acutely conscious of the importance of local elections. They are, after all, the means by which local people hold those who govern in their name to account. Nevertheless, the Government have received very strong representations that the local elections should be postponed as a consequence of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease; and we have paid very close attention to those representations.

As my noble friend said on Monday, our judgment was that, from a purely practical and administrative point of view, the elections could have gone ahead as scheduled. The buildings in which polling stations are located are, almost without exception, accessible by the public highway, which remains open; indeed, it is the case that, with only a tiny handful of exceptions, schools and libraries and other public buildings have remained open during the crisis, even in the worst affected areas.

Having said that, there is a world of difference between it being possible to run elections and it being desirable to do so. Both central and local government are devoting massive efforts and resources to seeking to combat and eradicate foot and mouth disease. It is quite clear that holding local elections in the middle of this work would be a distraction which would serve no useful purpose in the long-term battle to get on top of this outbreak.

We have also paid very close attention to the representations of those who have been most directly affected by foot and mouth disease. They have made it abundantly clear that they would consider it both unnecessary and insensitive to hold local elections next month. Accordingly, we have come to the view that, on balance, the national interest would best be served by deferring the elections that are due to be held next month.

Let me therefore explain to your Lordships why we have decided that the elections should be postponed for approximately a month, until 7th June.

I am not going to pretend to your Lordships that foot and mouth disease will be completely eradicated in a month's time. The experience of the outbreak in 1967 suggests that it will be many months before this country is completely free of foot and month disease. It is the case, however, that the next month will be crucial in our efforts to get on top of the outbreak. We need to ensure that we have proper mechanisms in place that enable us to deal with suspected cases instantly and ensure that the time between diagnosis of a case and slaughter of the animals affected is as short as possible. I hope that in the next month it may be possible to say that some of the areas which have had confirmed cases of foot and month disease are now free of it.

There is also another important consideration. We cannot ignore the needs of the tourism industry. It is a striking fact that for every 1 per cent of gross domestic product that comes from agriculture, 7 per cent of our GDP is generated by tourism. The tourist industry is rightly very concerned about the impact that foot and mouth disease is having both on domestic tourism and, more particularly, on tourism from overseas.

If we were to postpone the local elections indefinitely, as I believe the Official Opposition have suggested, the signal that we should be sending to the rest of the world is that Britain is in a terrible state and that we have no idea when things will get better. By setting a fixed date when these elections will take place, we are showing the rest of the world that we believe that within a month we shall have in place the mechanisms to ensure the eventual eradication of this disease and that Britain is open and ready to receive visitors for the all-important summer season. Noble Lords may be interested to hear what Malcolm Bell, of South West Tourism, said when the announcement was made on Monday. His words were: This is a positive announcement. There's confusion at the moment about whether or not the country is open. Delaying the election until June sends out a clear message that, before the summer holidays begin, Britain is back to normal". I should add, as many noble Lords recognised in the exchanges following the Statement repeated by my noble friend on Monday, there needs to be certainty. Local authorities, councillors, candidates and those who interact with local authorities need to be clear as to when the deferred elections will take place.

Having explained why we have brought the Bill forward, perhaps I may briefly explain its provisions. Clause 1, which applies to England and Wales, has the effect of postponing the ordinary local elections that were due to take place on 3rd May 2001 until 7th June 2001. It also, as I have indicated, provides that any local government by-elections to fill casual vacancies that would have been held within the period of the deferral will also take place on 7th June.

There are also a number of consequential provisions. The clause provides that candidates who were validly nominated before the nominations closed for the elections on 3rd April, two days ago, will remain validly nominated for the new elections without the need to submit fresh nomination papers.

However, candidates will have until 15th May to withdraw their nomination papers if they do not wish to contest the elections on the new date, and it will be possible for anyone else to submit nomination papers by 10th May. These dates are calculated, with reference to 7th June, using the normal local election timetable. For the sake of completeness, I should say that the closing date for postal vote applications will be 5 p.m. on Wednesday 30th May.

We recognise that even though, as I have just said, nominations for these elections only closed on Tuesday, after it had been announced that they would be postponed, some candidates may have already printed their leaflets. It is possible that some of these may be redundant: if, for example, they said something like "Vote Bassam on 3rd May"—it has never happened before, but one never knows. In recognition of this and of the fact that the campaign period will inevitably be longer than normal for the elections on 7th June, the election expenses limit for each candidate is raised by 50 per cent.

Clause 2 makes similar provisions in respect of the district council elections that were due to take place in Northern Ireland on 16th May. These, too, are moved to 7th June.

Much of the rest of the Bill, including the schedule, relates to Northern Ireland. The purpose of these provisions is to provide that if the general election and local elections fall on the same day, the polls in Northern Ireland can be combined, as they are on the mainland. Let me hasten to say to your Lordships that I am making no statement or prediction about the likely date of the general election. That is a matter for my right honourable friend the Prime Minister.

Section 15 of the Representation of the People Act 1985 provides that, where local and parliamentary elections fall on the same day, the polls can be combined. That is to say, voters can attend the same polling place and use the same polling station to cast their vote for two or more elections at the same time. That provision was never extended to Northern Ireland. The reason for that is that Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote electoral system in local government elections and it was thought that it might be too confusing if polls were combined when different electoral systems were in use.

However, we have had recent experience in Scotland and Wales of combined polls, where two or more electoral systems were in use and it is evident that it has not caused undue confusion to the electorate; nor have we seen a significant increase in the number of spoilt ballot papers. That being the case, there seems no reason why polls should not be combined in Northern Ireland, should the two elections fall on the same day, and we are therefore taking this useful opportunity to provide for that.

Detailed consequential changes to the parliamentary and local election rules are required. These are what the schedule contains. However, I can assure your Lordships that they simply mirror provisions already in force in Great Britain. Where they do not, it is as a result of consultations with electoral administrators.

I now turn to Clause 6. We recognise that local authorities, which are responsible for meeting the costs of local elections, will inevitably have incurred expenditure in preparing for elections on 3rd May and possibly, to a lesser extent, for elections on 16th May. They will also be obliged to go on incurring expenditure—for example, on printing ballot papers—until this legislation receives Royal Assent, which is why we are keen that it should reach the statute book with all due speed. We are very grateful for your Lordships' co-operation in that regard.

Clause 6 provides that the Secretary of State can set up a scheme to compensate local authorities for the additional expenditure they have incurred as a result of the deferral of the elections.

The clause also gives the Secretary of State the power to establish a scheme to compensate candidates for wasted expenditure. In another place yesterday, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary said—with the approval, I believe, of all parts of the House—that he did not believe it would be right to compensate candidates of registered political parties; however, the case of independent candidates who have suffered genuine and significant financial loss as a consequence of the deferral of the elections was rather different. He said that he would be prepared to consider claims from such people sympathetically.

I have outlined briefly the purpose of the Bill for your Lordships. As I indicated at the beginning of my remarks, in deciding to bring it forward we had to balance many competing interests and factors. Our conclusion was that it would not be appropriate to hold elections next month, but that all concerned—local authorities, candidates and those who deal with local authorities—need the certainty of knowing when the deferred elections will take place. That is what this Bill gives them.

Lord Renton

My Lords, can the Minister please amplify one statement that he made about the contribution of tourism to our gross domestic product? He said that domestic tourism provides some of that contribution, while foreign tourism provides the rest. Can the noble Lord tell the House how much each of those produces towards the 7 per cent figure?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I should very much have liked advance notice of such a question. Obviously it is a matter of importance. In everything that we say and do, we need to ensure that we continue to promote the view abroad that we are very much open for business. Clearly, much of our tourism depends on people travelling to our country. I shall endeavour to undertake some research in this respect and provide the noble Lord with as good a response as I can on the balance of tourism. I quite understand the noble Lord's point. In the meantime, I commend the Bill to your Lordships. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)

3.51 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, we are all grateful to the Minister for moving the Bill. We were also glad to hear that, despite what the speakers' list says, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, will conclude the debate. It is pleasing to be given such notice, if only in a public way.

The origins of this Bill must be as extraordinary as those of any Bill ever presented to Parliament, stemming from the Prime Minister's repetition to the media in Downing Street on Monday of part of what his spin doctors told the media on Friday; namely, that the general election and the council elections for 3rd May were to be postponed for approximately a month.

The Prime Minister asked us to believe two impossible things. The first impossible thing was that his announcement was all about the council elections. No one believes that the Prime Minister would bother to invite the media and make a great public statement to them in Downing Street solely about the council elections. This is the only Bill—certainly, one of so modest a size—I can think of which has warranted a personal press conference by the Prime Minister, particularly as he was unaccompanied by the relevant departmental Ministers. The fact that he stood alone gave away that he made it because he was also postponing the plans he had for the general election. As a matter of fact, he would not have needed to make an implied announcement about the general election if he and his people had not built up the idea that the general election was to be on 3rd May in the first place. As we all know perfectly well, it does not need to be held until next year.

The second impossible thing the Prime Minister asked us to believe is that although there is in his, and in the Government's, view apparently no practical reason for doing so, the 3rd May elections are being postponed for a month out of concern for the sensitivities of farmers, and others, in rural areas. But, of course, that concern is strictly temporary and time limited. Whatever happens to the foot and mouth epidemic, we are told that the elections will go ahead on 7th June. There are two things wrong about that. First, there are practical reasons why the elections, especially council elections in some parts of the country, are difficult to hold, and, secondly, no one—not even the Prime Minister—knows what the position will be at that time as far as concerns the foot and mouth epidemic. Where there are two impossible things to believe, it seems to me to be worthy of a new Lewis Carroll; I suggest, "Alastair in Wonderland".

We all know that the Prime Minister, for very good reason, got scared about the effects of the foot and mouth crisis on his planned early election, and that he dare not risk waiting until October. I, for one, wish that we could be spared this nauseating stuff about Tony thinking about the whole country. For the past four years, No. 10 has been a ruthless nest of political manipulators, constantly tweaking the tiller in response to every puff of the political wind in order to control both internal Labour politics and its national image. Incidentally, the Liberal Democrats fall for it about every other week.

However, there would have been no general election problem or uncertainty—and, for example, no damage to tourism—if the Prime Minister had not driven so hard to build up expectations of an early election. The general election has not been postponed; but it will not be held early, or not as early as we had been led to believe. The council elections, perhaps only in the worst hit areas, could readily have been postponed without any international repercussions. By trying to hang on to his plan to go early, he has increased the damage to the tourist industry and extended the problems.

As we had a full debate on the subject yesterday, there no need for me to say much about foot and mouth. But, like most of us, I feel dreadful about those affected. A friend of mine in Cumberland has told me about an outbreak on a nearby farm, which finished lambing—in all weathers—late on Saturday night. They killed the lot, both ewes and lambs, on Tuesday. Worse still for me, there is a group of cases in Berkeley, just outside the town. The farms are devastated. Businesses of all kinds are on the floor; and the awful stench of burning drifts over it all. So it is right not to hold the general election a year early in the midst of the crisis. It is right to postpone the council elections. But to spin first one way and then another has multiplied the damage, and we are left with this emergency Bill.

It may have an odd origin, but it is a Bill of some constitutional significance. In this country we allow the Prime Minister of the day to initiate an early general election, but we have fixed dates for local elections that should not be lightly or easily moved. We have no entrenched constitution which would, in most countries, govern such things, so an ordinary Bill—or, as in this case, a half-debated, rushed Bill—can vary the constitution. I very much regret the guillotine motion in another place that denied this Bill, like others, proper scrutiny. But it happened and it places an extra responsibility on your Lordships' House.

We have amendments that we will wish to propose on some of the provisions. I shall not refer to all of them today, but one is of particular importance. It would give the Secretary of State power by order, subject to affirmative procedure in both Houses, to deal with the situation should the foot and mouth epidemic remain out of control when it comes to the council elections on 7th June. If it is right—as it is—to postpone the local elections now because of foot and mouth, it may still be right in May. It is simply not logical to bash ahead regardless.

If the worst happens, our suggestion is that either individual by-elections or whole local areas may need further respite. In the amendment, we shall provide for objective tests of the progress in halting the foot and mouth epidemic to ensure that the delaying powers can only be invoked for that reason. Of course we all hope that they will not be necessary, but June is not far off and obviously the election process would have to start some weeks before that. The epidemic is still powerful and unpredictable, as we all know. In some areas farmers are candidates for council elections. They are sometimes long-standing councillors. How can they campaign in these circumstances? Can everyone in the most severely affected areas get a postal vote form and return it when they are stuck on the farms where they live? Those are some of the practical problems of holding local elections in the present situation, or anything like it. In my judgment it is simply not true to assert that there are no practical problems. There are.

The Minister rightly drew attention to the Northern Ireland provisions of the Bill. They bring their own complications and take up the bulk of the Bill. Those of us who follow matters in the Province wish to study the details but there is also an interesting corollary. As was said, the Northern Ireland local elections were due on 16th May, but they are to be moved to 7th June. Virtually all the complications in the Bill arise from the requirement to enable the general election to be held on the same day as the local elections; that is to say, on 7th June. That is the clearest signal that the general election is to be held on 7th June in spite of the Minister's attempts to fudge it.

Like all of us, I hate the reasons for this Bill's introduction. I regret the way that all this has been thrust upon us and the councils by the Government's delay, but overall it is right to postpone the council elections.

4.2 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, as many noble Lords said on Monday, it is dangerous to delay any election. It is worth emphasising that point. However, in the present circumstances the case is arguable and the arguments are pretty finely balanced.

Two or three weeks ago I discussed the date of the general election with my noble friend Lord Shutt of Greetland. He said that it would be unseemly to hold a general election in view of the current problems with foot and mouth in the countryside and its effects on the tourism industry. For that reason I support the proposal in the Bill. As the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, said—I understand the reasons for the Government not being able to admit to this—we are discussing the Bill against the backdrop of the likely concurrence of the general election with the council elections. I find it difficult, if not impossible, to maintain the fiction that the general election date is irrelevant to that. The perhaps unworthy thought has also crossed my mind that the Government would prefer not to have the council elections before the general election as the results might not be those they would wish.

However, as I say, we shall not impede the Bill. A major factor in my mind is the general public view that, "You politicians are only in it for yourselves". My response is often, "Yes, we are in it for all the footslogging and the lost sleep" although, admittedly, we are also in it for the buzz, the excitement and even sometimes for the sense of doing something worthwhile. However, that general public perception and the lack of engagement of the general public with what we, as serious politicians, attempt to do for our country are of the utmost concern. If we do not recognise the way that those outside the hothouse of Westminster perceive the manner in which decisions are taken, we would be most insensitive to what is in the public mind.

The tight timetable of the legislation perhaps only reinforces the public perception of the introspection of Parliament. I am glad that this House has two days to consider the Bill. It is a matter for another place how it deals with its time but I suppose it was inevitable that it spent longer on the guillotine Motion than on the Second Reading of the Bill yesterday.

However, we could not support any proposal to make the postponement of the local elections open-ended. That would give far too much power to politicians. Whether or not the Conservatives wish to keep their heads in the sand over when the election will take place is not perhaps a matter for debate today. We shall debate on Monday the amendment flagged up by the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley. However, we are doubtful that it is possible to apply the objective tests which he mentioned. We would be very much against a patchwork of elections taking place in some areas but not in others.

I am concerned that the provisions of Clause 7 might allow the Secretary of State to change the date of 7th June by order. We shall table an amendment to seek absolute clarity that the provisions for statutory instruments do not extend to a change of the date which is at the heart of the Bill. As has been said—it is quite clear from the comparative length of the contents of the Bill—the Northern Ireland provisions had been drawn up before the rather short provisions on the change of date of the elections in England and Wales. One can speculate as to whether the provisions were waiting in someone's out tray to be used on another occasion.

Obviously, there are pressures on parliamentary draftsmen. However, if the provisions to implement the change in England and Wales, including the orders to be made, need in total to be as long as those for Northern Ireland and are to be made by order subject to negative resolution, that is not satisfactory. We have already seen an example of the confusion and the difficulty in which officials inevitably find themselves. A circular from the Home Office—which, in these wondrous days of e-mail, appeared on my computer this morning—commences as follows: Some of you have noticed that one of the dates given in circular 439 is wrong". Such an error is not surprising, given the speed with which the process has been carried out, but it is a pity that we have not been a little more competent.

I believe that Clause 7, which provides for transitional, consequential or supplemental provision, might include the scheme for compensation which is the subject of Clause 6. We are most concerned about how a compensation scheme would be calculated and approved. It should be subject to some kind of scrutiny. We support compensation for local authorities which will have incurred the expenses of a partly aborted process for the May elections and may, in some cases, face the expense of finding a new polling station where, for example, examinations are being held in schools on the relevant date. However, we do not support compensation for candidates. That is a matter on which we shall table an amendment.

The Minister confirmed what the Secretary of State said in another place yesterday; namely, that he would regard it as inappropriate for candidates of registered political parties to be compensated from the public purse. I am not sure whether we have heard that stated in the form of an undertaking that the Government will not put forward a scheme providing for that. It would be helpful if the Minister replying to the debate could give that undertaking.

The Home Secretary said that he wanted to keep open the option of compensation for farmers who intend to stand as independent candidates and bear their own costs. Because I come from a rather impecunious party, many of the candidates whom I know bear most of their own costs. I do not believe that the point is particularly relevant and I am not immediately persuaded that it would be appropriate.

The issue of compensation for those who work in the countryside and are affected by foot and mouth disease, both directly and indirectly, is a large one. I do not believe that it is the way in which to begin to address the matter. It is an irrelevant point and it would be wrong for compensation for individuals to come out of the public pocket. If the Government are insistent on pursuing the matter, I invite them to consider technically whether the compensation should go to agents rather than candidates. I believe that by law the agents are required to pay the bill.

Another cost may well be incurred by the need to post election leaflets which cannot be delivered. The issue of a free post was raised in another place and, indeed, was discussed i n your Lordships' House in relation to other elections. We would like to see it used more extensively.

The placing of a limit on expenses is a different matter. I accept that some candidates will already have started their campaigns. I have a slight doubt about raising the limit because I believe that it may tend to favour those who can pay more towards the cost of the elections. However, we shall not oppose that provision.

My noble friend Lord Smith of Clifton will refer to the Northern Ireland provisions. I simply observe that the different electoral processes apply not only in Wales and Scotland but also in London. I declare an interest: I was a candidate during the GLA elections last year. I hope that the Northern Ireland Office does rather better than the Home Office has done in disseminating information about the different electoral processes which apply. I observed a good deal of confusion with regard to the different systems in London. Undoubtedly it is a matter that will require resources.

I turn briefly to the practicalities. The House should be aware that, in our view, the knock-on effects of moving annual council meetings are not only bureaucratic or, indeed, personal—I wonder how many holidays have been cancelled this week—but will mean moving committee dates which follow the annual council meeting. In the real world of providing real services for real people, that means postponing decisions about service delivery. It is at this time of year, following the annual meeting and the move from budget setting to detailed planning, that so often major decisions are taken.

With regard to the dates of the police and fire authority annual meetings, the Minister in another place confirmed that the appointment term of members of local authorities runs with the electoral term of the local authority. I assume that that applies at both ends of the term, but I should be grateful for confirmation.

In addition, at present local authorities are all heavily involved in plans for introducing the executive/ scrutiny split, which is part of the Government's modernisation programme. I believe that the authorities are required to submit their plans by June. Again in that respect real difficulty is bound to arise because the change of personnel in many local authorities will be postponed. I wonder whether the Minister can comment on that.

In asking the following question, I do not want to detain the House but rather to give notice to the Government of points that will be raised on Monday. I wonder whether it is appropriate for Clause 1(3) to be in the Bill or whether it is a matter for modification of—I am told by one of my colleagues—the Local Elections (Principal Areas) Rules. Perhaps the Government will consider that, although I do not expect a reply today.

Finally, does the reference to "ordinary local government election" in Clause 1(1) apply only to principal authorities, and what will be the effect on towns and parishes?

We note from the absence of government Back-Bench speakers either complete confidence in their Front Bench or their rather luke-warm welcome for the Bill. I am not sure which it is. However, as I said, we on these Benches will not impede the progress of the Bill.

4.15 p.m.

Baroness Young

My Lords, like many noble Lords, I, too, began my political career in local government and have a particular interest in this Bill. Indeed, I live in an authority in which local government elections are held every year. The fact that there will not be a local government election on the first Thursday in May seems a very surprising event.

This is a very important Bill. We all share a great concern for the reason that has brought it about—the appalling effects of the foot and mouth disease which has come like a plague on our country and which is having such terrible effects on so many industries. I very much share the view expressed so well by my noble friend Lord Cope about the general incompetence which has brought us to this particular position and to the need to debate this Bill today.

The postponement of an election in a democracy is extraordinary. If one looks around the world at countries that have postponed elections, one can hardly say that they provide very good examples. As I understand it, this is the first time since the Second World War that an election has been postponed. Even then, a Bill was put before Parliament every year to obtain agreement to the elections being postponed. Therefore, it is right that the matter should be debated fully in this House. I regard it as quite wrong that debate on a Bill of this constitutional importance was cut short in another place.

The Bill enjoys all-party support. Indeed, my party called for a postponement of the elections some little time ago. I believe that it would have been far better if the Bill had been introduced at that stage rather than leaving it until the very last moment. Of course, serious consequences will arise for a great many people as a result of dealing with this legislation in a rush at the last moment.

I want to make two general comments about the Bill. The first concerns expatriate voters. We are conscious that effectively thousands of expatriate voters have been disenfranchised. I understand that they must all register by 5th April. As that is today's date and as the election is being postponed by a month, would it not be possible to alter the date for registration? I understand that a website exists but that it does not give all the information that expatriate voters require in order to discover whether they can obtain application forms for registration as overseas voters. Given that there is now some extra time, would it not be possible to put right that matter? It would not have been possible had this Bill not come before us. However, as the elections are being postponed, it seems that this important point could be considered.

The second general point that I want to make is that when, two years ago, we discussed reform of the House of Lords, the point was made on many occasions that the House of Lords has a long-stop power to prevent another place extending its life beyond the present period of five years. Clearly, no such provision exists in relation to local government elections, which is a serious deficiency. I raise the question of whether there should be some such provision; otherwise, how do we know that this type of Bill will not come before us at some point in the future? Of course, we do not know. No one could have expected that this situation would arise and we simply do not know what will happen in the future. Therefore, the Bill sets a precedent.

I looked into the possibility of tabling an amendment to rectify the deficiency to which I have just referred but, in view of the time constraints and other considerations, it would be very difficult to do so. The issue is outside the scope of the Bill's Long Title. However, I make the point because the issue will not go away and the Government should address it. Our unwritten constitution should contain a measure on, or place a stop against, the sudden introduction of Bills of this nature. Other such Bills might not have the support that this Bill enjoys.

Before concluding, I want to make four small, practical points about the Bill. First, like the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and my noble friend Lord Cope, I believe that the terms of compensation must be generous. After all, those in local government are, to a large extent, volunteers. They get their expenses—in my day, we did not even get that—and they carry out work that all of us in public life encourage people to do. Local government will suffer considerable expense because of the delay. It is right for compensation to be generous and full, especially in relation to those areas that are badly affected by foot and mouth disease.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Baroness but I had better make it clear that I was distinguishing between providing compensation for local authorities, which we support, and doing so for individuals, which we do not support. I do not argue with her point about hard work, but we do not support compensation for individual candidates.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness if I misunderstood what she said. I think that we can all agree on providing compensation to local authorities. We should carefully consider providing compensation to others. The delay has put many people to great inconvenience and, no doubt, great expense.

My second point involves the inconvenience caused to employers and employees. Many people who stand for council elections are given three weeks off work by their employers to do the necessary work. Now what will happen? Will they be able to return to their job and get another three weeks off later on? That practical issue affects many people.

Thirdly, the proposals will have an effect on schools. The noble and learned Lord may make that point when he winds up. I recognise that most schools that are used as polling stations are primary schools, but 7th June is almost the peak time for examinations. If an authority uses a secondary school rather than a primary school for polling, that would be a serious disadvantage to candidates who are taking extremely important public examinations.

Fourthly, I want to take up another point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who discussed the mechanics of the work of local government. As anyone in local government knows, after a local government election and the announcement of the result, a sequence of meetings takes place. An 11-month year will affect that sequence of meetings. There could be serious delays in, for example, planning applications—important decisions might be held up. Social services and education might also be affected, although planning would be most seriously affected. It is important for local government to know at each step of the way exactly what detailed knock-on effects will apply.

Other points could be made in this context but we can doubtless examine them in Committee. I accept that it is right to put off the local elections. This serious issue raises many more points than simply those relating to dealing with this emergency. The Bill deserves close consideration and we should not forget the major constitutional points that are raised and which need to be examined. The Bill sets a precedent and we need to understand the circumstances in which we agree to it and what we should or should not agree to in future.

4.25 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, I shall confine my remarks to Northern Ireland. As the noble Lord, Lord Cope, has already observed, although provisions relating to Northern Ireland take up more than half of the Bill, the Minister's introduction gave relatively scant attention to it. If I were in his shoes, I should have been tempted to adopt the same tactics.

My second observation is that I am amazed that, with the notable exception of the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, no noble Lord who hails from Northern Ireland is in his place.

At first glance, it is not easy to see why provisions relating to Northern Ireland should be included in the Bill, bearing in mind that there has not, thank goodness, been a widespread outbreak of foot and mouth disease there to the same extent as there has been in Great Britain. Moreover, provisions relating to Northern Ireland cannot have been included on the grounds that we expect conformity across the board in the formal arrangements that we make for the governance of the United Kingdom. After all, it was only on 15th February that this House made Northern Ireland an exception to the provisions of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act. We accepted then that in terms of the UK's system of government, there does not have to be uniformity in all circumstances. Indeed, that is axiomatic and entrenched now that there are devolved Assemblies in Northern Ireland and Wales and a Scottish Parliament with greater devolved powers. A very cogent case has to be made for changing the election date, but that case has not yet been made. That is the major principle that lies at the heart of our debate.

The honourable Member for Cannock Chase, speaking in another place last night, questioned whether it was proper for politicians to change the dates of fixed-term elections. Dr Tony Wright believes, as I do, that if circumstances arise that require the alteration of dates, the decision should be most appropriately left to the new Electoral Commission, which is an independent, non-party-political body that Parliament recently established.

As regards Northern Ireland, the Bill risks bearing the hallmarks of a gerrymander, which, of course, is not unknown in the island of Ireland. I hope that the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General will be able to demonstrate that that is not so.

Apart from the question of principle—that is, whether, short of war or an outbreak of civil unrest, fixed terms for elections should be arbitrarily tampered with—a number of detailed practical questions need to be considered in relation to Northern Ireland.

First, the chief executive of each of the 26 district councils is responsible for the conduct of elections, with the local deputy electoral officer acting as returning officer for all other elections in Northern Ireland. Did the Government consult electoral officials about whether it was wise to make such a significant change to the arrangements for local elections in Northern Ireland, without notice, or have they merely asked officials about how to do it?

Secondly, how practical is it to make the changes at such short notice, bearing in mind the particular difficulties of conducting elections in Northern Ireland? Thirdly—a detailed point—will there be two ballot boxes at each polling station? Fourthly, will extra staff be employed to deal with busy times? Fifthly, how will extra staff be organised to speed up voting, because one cannot have more than one person issuing ballot papers?

If there is a general election on 7th June—the same day as the local elections—who will have legal responsibility for the verification of ballot boxes for council elections if that is done at the parliamentary counting centre under the direction of the deputy electoral officer for the constituency? Moreover, what happens if there is a discrepancy when the council count starts on Monday, 11th June? In that regard, we should bear in mind that in many council elections, under the single transferable vote system, the last seat may be won by fewer than 10 votes—sometimes by much less than that—and that sometimes only four or five ballot papers need to go astray to invalidate the count.

Why are postal votes to be issued in two separate ways? Moreover, is it not possible to have both ballot papers issued for return in a single envelope with a single declaration? Finally, the rules for opening ballot boxes prescribe that a ballot paper in the wrong box should be counted. Why will a ballot paper in the wrong envelope not be counted? Will postal votes not be verified with other votes?

I end by stressing that this particular episode has demonstrated the case for fixed term elections for Westminster very well. Every State of the Nation survey made at regular intervals over the past 10 years has shown that there is overwhelming public support for such a constitutional change. Perhaps the Government will now undertake to provide support for Dr Tony Wright's Private Member's Bill which seeks to introduce fixed term Parliaments at Westminster.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Norton of Louth

My Lords, the reasons why this Bill has been introduced are well known and were advanced by the Minister. My purpose in speaking in this debate is not to address the crisis which precipitated it; nor is it my intention to address the implications of the Bill from the perspective of local government. There are many in your Lordships' House who can address those issues much more effectively than I can.

The Bill has constitutional implications and it is those I wish to address. I do so under two headings. The first is that of options. If it is necessary to postpone elections, what options have been considered? As we know, the Bill stipulates that local government elections shall be postponed until 7th June; others, including the Leader of the Opposition, argue for an indefinite delay. The Prime Minister, in making his statement said, "A short postponement is one thing. An indefinite delay is another". The options may be mutually exclusive. However, they are not exhaustive.

At least four other options may be considered. One is to delay local elections for a period of several months—say six months. There is no guarantee that foot and mouth disease will be under control by 7th June. So why not allow a little longer? That could meet the balancing test enunciated by the Prime Minister.

Another option is to provide for a postponement of some but not all elections. Why not postpone elections only in those counties affected by foot and mouth disease? That is an option that was touched upon in the other place last night. As the Minister may be aware, in the general election of 1945 polling was delayed in 23 constituencies because of trades holidays, wakes or fairs.

The third option is to provide for a postponement of six months but to permit the date to be brought forward by order. That provides some flexibility without giving a blank cheque to government.

The fourth option is to abolish this year's elections altogether and give the existing authorities an extra year of life.

My purpose in identifying these options is not to advocate one in particular. It is to show that there are several options. Given the importance that clearly attaches to changing the dates of elections, it is important that we are aware of them and that they are considered. The Prime Minister may believe that the case for 7th June is overwhelming. It may be; but the decision to postpone is ultimately one not for the Prime Minister, but for Parliament. We must therefore consider fully not only the case for postponement to 7th June, but the alternatives to that.

I therefore pose the following questions to the noble and learned Lord who is to reply. What thought was given to the alternative options? Why were they rejected? We had a partial answer in the other place to some of the options, but not to all. The Minister may also have seen an article in the Independent on Friday by my colleague at Hull University, Mark Stuart, drawing attention to the fact that the general election of 1923 occurred during an outbreak of foot and mouth disease. Can the Minister tell us what study the Government undertook of that occasion prior to introducing this measure?

I turn to my second heading, which concerns the criteria for delaying elections. Elections are the lifeblood of democracy; they are the means by which electors choose their representatives; they are the means of ensuring a peaceful selection of government, both national and local; and they are a peaceful means of removing a government from office. We must be extremely careful before we start interfering with the blood supply of democracy.

We have statutory provision for parliamentary and local elections. We stipulate the maximum life of a Parliament. We set dates for the holding of local elections and, indeed, for other elections. We must be wary of moving election dates, certainly of postponing them for any length of time. I see no problem with a minor adjustment, as happened in 1986, because of a clash with Passover. However, once we start postponing them for several weeks or several months, it sets a precedent. The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, raised that concern in putting a question to the Leader of the House on Monday. We have postponed elections in wartime—a point to which I shall return—but should we be postponing them in peacetime?

If we are to postpone them, we need to be clear as to the criteria that would justify such a postponement. In short, we need to put on record the criteria that will justify what we are doing and, in so doing, set the boundaries for any attempts in the future to move election dates. I suggest that there are four essential criteria that must be met to justify delaying any election, be it parliamentary or local.

The first is that there must be a clear national crisis; that is, it must be apparent to most citizens that the country faces a domestic or international situation that affects the economic or social wellbeing or the security of the nation. The second is that the crisis must affect, materially and substantially, the capacity to conduct the elections. That may encompass campaigning as well as actual voting on polling day. The third is that there must be agreement between the parties that there is a case for delay. Unilateral action on the part of government must, in such circumstances, be avoided.

The fourth is that there must be proper parliamentary debate. Even though there may be a need for speed, this should not be at the expense of proper scrutiny. Agreement between the parties may equal might in terms of parliamentary voting strength, but might does not necessarily equal right. We need to hear all those with a view on the issue. Those who have dissenting views should not necessarily have a veto power, but it is important that their voices are heard.

All four conditions were met in time of war. Parliament agreed to postpone local and parliamentary elections in both world wars. In the Second World War, local elections were postponed initially under the terms of the 1939 Local Elections and Register of Electors (Temporary Provisions) Act. That Act postponed elections until the end of 1940. In moving the Second Reading the Home Secretary, Sir John Anderson, said that they would be extended by further legislation, "as circumstances require". Circumstances did require, and each year a new measure was introduced and enacted, extending in each case the delay by a further year. It is interesting that, during consideration of the measures, the question was raised by some Members of allowing elections where local citizens wanted elections to take place.

Parliamentary elections—or rather the election of Parliament—was postponed on an annual basis by a Prolongation of Parliament Act. The 1940 Bill was a one-clause Bill extending the life of the Parliament to six years, and the one the following year fell back on the Septennial Act. It was clear that when Churchill introduced the 1944 Bill, that would be the last of the Parliament.

There was a clear national crisis. The country was at war. The capacity to hold elections was significantly affected. Many of those who would normally be involved in elections, as officials or candidates, were busy fighting the war. Many buildings where polling would take place were in use for the war effort and the blackout created problems for people getting out to vote. Despite the pressures, Parliament continued to meet, and the measures each Session to extend the life of the Parliament and to postpone local elections were debated, on occasion with critical voices being heard. Parliament continued to do its duty; and indeed it emerged from the war with its reputation enhanced.

So the four criteria I outlined were clearly met. Are they met in present circumstances? There is a crisis in terms of the outbreak of foot and mouth, and we do not know when it will end. The Leader of the House emphasised on Monday that, in practice, local elections could go ahead on 3rd May. However, the campaign for those elections is likely to be affected by the outbreak of foot and mouth. Candidates and their supporters may have difficulty employing their usual means of eliciting support. Some of those involved in elections are occupied attending to the crisis. Indeed, there is every likelihood—this has already been touched upon—that some potential candidates are farmers isolated in their homes.

The second criterion is thus met, although I appreciate that there is room for discussion on the point. The case is persuasive rather than conclusive. The third criterion is also met in that this measure will be going through with all-party support. However, the fact that it is going through with all-party support emphasises the point of the fourth criterion; that is, that it must have proper parliamentary scrutiny.

Proper parliamentary scrutiny has a qualitative and a quantitative dimension. By that, I mean not only must there be sufficient time to discuss the measure, but the Government must also engage in a full and frank dialogue with both Houses. I believe that the time allocated in this House is probably sufficient. It is up to us to ensure that we are satisfied with the provisions. I welcome what the Leader of the House said on Monday about consultation. It is equally important that we have an informed debate on the Floor of the House so that those outside the House can see the basis for our deliberations and our decision.

A particular responsibility falls on this House. We have the experience and the expertise to subject measures to informed scrutiny. We also have the capacity to ensure that scrutiny is adequate in a way that the other place is unable to do. I understand that we are told that we cannot discuss the procedures of the other place, that the other place is master of its own procedure, and that we cannot interfere with that. I accept that. However, where the procedures of the other place have consequences for Parliament's capacity to determine public policy, we must he able to take note of those procedures. I use this debate to make that point. I regret that I did not pursue it on the Regulatory Reform Bill. I shall pursue it in the future.

It appears that the criteria that I have outlined are fulfilled in making the case for a postponement oflocal elections. I say "appears" because some may dispute the fulfilment of the second criterion and the fourth is only partially fulfilled. Furthermore, those criteria establish the case for delay. They do not help us to determine the length of the delay. That is a matter for further debate. One obvious criterion would be that applied in wartime, which is to wait until the crisis is over. However, even the events of 1945 are not conclusive, as there was disagreement on when the coalition should end. We must, therefore, address ourselves to the issue. That means a full discussion of the options that I have outlined. As the basis for that, I look forward to the noble and learned Lord providing a full response to the questions that I have posed.

4.42 p.m.

Lord Rennard

My Lords, in my view this debate on the postponement of elections clearly illustrates the need in this country for a written constitution and a fixed term Parliament. Once again, I find it strangely ironic to argue for democratic principles in an unelected Chamber. Whether elected or not, one of the main purposes of a second Chamber must be to keep a careful eye on how changes may be proposed to our democratic system.

All democrats should have serious concerns about such a fundamental change to democratic rules as the postponement of any elections. One concern about this legislation is the precedent that it may set for a government, at some point in the future, to decree a national emergency as warranting the postponement of any elections. A deeply unpopular government who are facing disaster at local or national polls may decide that a particular national crisis demands the full attention of the Prime Minister and that therefore some elections should be postponed. Who knows?

It is 19 years to the day since the Falklands task force set sail from Southampton. Despite the need to chair a daily war cabinet meeting, the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, did not feel that it was necessary to postpone the local elections of 1982. I can think of no Prime Minister who has been so closely involved in a local election campaign that he or she has been unable to get on with the business of running the country while local election campaigns took place.

The fact that the Falklands War was an international crisis and the foot and mouth outbreak is a terrible domestic problem in some areas is not in itself sufficient of a justification to treat the two crises differently. What is different is simply that a general election is in prospect as well as local elections.

Of course, there would have been some real difficulties in conducting the local elections in some of the worst affected areas such as Devon. The strength of feeling in such areas is such that I am sure that the Government are right to postpone local elections there for a short while, but in the vast majority of areas due to have local elections on 3rd May there are no such difficulties. The question today is why are we considering the postponement of local elections across the whole country. The only real case for the postponement of all the local elections is that the general election will take place on the same day. Everybody knows that, but no one from the Government can say so "on the record".

The real reason why postponement of all local elections for one month is appropriate is because most people would consider it inappropriate voluntarily to choose to hold a general election at the same time as fighting a crisis that affects so much of our countryside. I have come to accept that argument with some reluctance because for Parliament to postpone any elections is a very serious matter.

I am also concerned about the signals that that may send to other countries where people are struggling to establish their democratic rights. No doubt Slobodan Milosevic now wishes that he had been able to postpone the last parliamentary elections in Serbia because of the grave crisis in that unhappy country following the failure of his military exploits.

It seems to me that if any democratic country postpones elections, any such postponement must require considerable consensus among all the main parties. I believe that that would be best guaranteed by a written constitution, perhaps requiring a two-thirds majority in both Houses of Parliament. That would be a proper process for ensuring that the electoral cycle was not simply being manipulated for party advantage.

A fixed term Parliament would also remove what I believe is an unfair and undemocratic advantage for an incumbent Prime Minister. The Labour Party recognised such a matter in 1992, but sadly lost sight of the principle as the prospect of power loomed in 1997. I believe that it is an issue that must be addressed if the process of constitutional reform in Britain is to continue in the next Parliament.

There are a number of details in the Bill to be considered. First, there is the issue of whether 7th June is the appropriate date for postponed elections. I believe that they should not take place later because a number of councillors will have assumed that their term of office will come to an end on 3rd May—they may have made other plans for the month of May onwards—and there will be other candidates waiting to offer their services to councils who will need to know in the near future what political direction they will be taking. Above all, it also makes sense for the general election to he held on 7th June so that those elections and all the arrangements and disturbance that go with them can be combined.

Another issue before us is the request of candidates to be compensated for their consequential losses in printing literature that includes a 3rd May polling date. I understand that that was a request made by the Conservative Party. If so, that appears to be yet another occasion when the Conservative Party requests state funding in addition to that which it currently receives via the so-called "Short money", the funds paid to the office of the Leader of the Opposition, the funds paid for the implementation of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act and the funds shortly to be on offer from the Policy Development Fund.

Although my party believes that limited state funding would be better than dependency on a few wealthy individuals and organisations, we do not believe that state funding to compensate council candidates in this way would be appropriate. These elections are being postponed out of respect for the feelings of those in the countryside who are suffering from the foot and mouth outbreak. Imagine how outraged they would be if, while they await details of compensation for farmers and others, candidates who had simply printed their leaflets too early were to be compensated first. I believe that the Government should drop such an idea.

The matter of compensation to councils for their costs is a different matter. However, I was greatly surprised on Tuesday to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, the Leader of the House, argue for compensation for the cost of printing the ballot papers. Our country is an even less democratic place than I thought if local authorities have been able to print ballot papers even before nominations have closed. There will be plenty of time to print them between now and polling day if the legislation falls. There will, however, be some modest costs which they must incur in publishing lists of candidates and so forth.

Overall, there should be a considerable saving to many councils if the cost of running local elections on 7th June is combined with a general election on the same day. There will be no need to hire polling stations and special staff on two different occasions.

Finally, those responsible for organising these elections, those who participate in them and indeed the whole country would benefit if we changed from a system in which the date of our elections could change according to the changing mood of the Prime Minister and in which we did not have to rely on purchasing the >Sun newspaper in order to find out when polling day would be. We would benefit from a system which provided advance certainty of when our general elections would take place.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may ask him a short question. I listened with great attention and respect. Is he advocating a written constitution?

Lord Rennard

My Lords, yes, indeed. I thought that I was specific on that point, but I was not sufficiently clear and I apologise. That has been the long-standing policy of the Liberal Democrats, and would provide considerable assistance during situations such as this.

Lord Norton of Louth

My Lords, before the noble Lord finally sits down, can he tell us how many written constitutions stipulate the dates on which local elections shall be held?

Lord Rennard

My Lords, as there is no written constitution for this country, the situation has not yet arisen. I am not sure how many overseas countries have written constitutions. However, the United States, for example, has a fixed period of four years for presidential elections. If the same applied to this country, we would not have the present problem of not knowing when our general election will be.

Lord Norton of Louth

My Lords, before the noble Lord finally finally sits down, that would not apply to the terms of local elections in the United States.

Lord Rennard

My Lords, I must admit that I am no great expert on local elections in the United States.

4.52 p.m.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, I believe that the constitutions of the states of the United States specify when the state elections should be. That is relevant to what my noble friend said. My noble friend Lord Rennard said much of what I had intended to say, so I can make a shorter speech.

It is clear that there is considerable unease about the Bill among Members on these Benches. My noble friend Lady Hamwee said that as a balance must be struck between the arguments she had come down on one side. That is the view we shall take and the way we shall vote during the passage of the Bill.

It is right and proper that concern and disquiet should be expressed about the way in which the date of public elections was unilaterally changed by the Prime Minister at almost a moment's notice and in the knowledge that he could use his parliamentary majority in another place to ensure that that was agreed. Would we be discussing the Bill here today if there were not a general election in the offing? The answer is probably not.

We might well have been discussing a Bill about Northern Ireland, because it is clear that the Northern Ireland sections of the Bill have been in preparation for more than a couple of days. It is equally clear that the sections which refer to England and Wales were put together on the back of a fag packet, or whatever people use in these non-smoking days, in the couple of days before the Bill went to the Commons.

We might indeed have been discussing the kind of measure suggested by my noble friend Lord Rennard and the noble Lord, Lord Norton; that is, the ability of the Government to postpone the local council elections in areas where there is serious difficulty. No one who knows Cumbria could argue that a postponement of elections there does not have a great deal of merit.

The Bill postpones all the by-elections which are scheduled from 3rd May onwards. However, there does not appear to be a great need to postpone the pending by-elections in Islington or the middle of Manchester. I do not suggest that the Government have paid attention to the fact that the Liberal Democrats are likely to win those two seats from the Labour Party, but that will probably be the case whenever the elections are held.

By-elections have been taking place since the foot and mouth outbreak began and they will take place today. They will continue to take place in dribs and drabs until 3rd May when suddenly they will stop. There seems to be no great logic behind that. It is substantially agreed across the parties that it would he wholly inappropriate to hold a general election on 3rd May and there is general agreement that the local elections should therefore be postponed. That was put forward most eloquently by my noble friend on our Front Bench. However, it has become clear that the support given from these Benches is accompanied by two cheers and not three and by considerable reservations.

There are strong alternative views within local government in many parts of the country. They were expressed, for example, by the Labour leader of Cheshire County Council and by the leader of the Labour controlled Lancashire County Council where I live. I hesitate to suggest that I speak for them in any way, but it is right that those reservations should be expressed here today.

Issues of principle are involved when politicians postpone scheduled elections. Not for the first time, this House should be grateful for the presence here of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, who can better express these matters from his expertise and intelligent observation. I look forward to reading his speech in Hansard and I hope that the Government do, too. I hope that it will be taken as a first stage in the establishment of principles on which such decisions can be made in future.

There is an irony, perhaps a paradox, that in this country it is being suggested that if we have a severe national crisis the answer is postponing democratic elections. Together with the rest of Europe and the United States, we are telling people that if they have severe crises in their countries they should hold democratic elections because that is part of the answer to crises. We would have been horrified if Milosevic had been able to postpone the elections in Serbia.

Bosnia lurches from crisis to crisis almost by the day. Part of the answer which is being pressed on Bosnia by the international community is to hold more elections. In the past few years since the Dayton agreement, Bosnia has held more elections than any other democratic country. If we are sending a message to people such as President Mugabe that the answer is to postpone elections when things become difficult, we have a problem. If while we are telling the rest of the world, "If you have severe crises, rely on democracy to help sort them out", we are seen to be going against that advice, there is an irony and perhaps an illogically.

It is not clear why the Government believe that the census can go ahead when elections cannot. It is not clear why the Government are telling tourists that the countryside is open and that they should go to the countryside. I read in the newspapers that Labour MPs are being forbidden to go to foreign countries for the Easter holidays and are being told that anyone seen in the South of France, for example, will be severely reprimanded. I can promise them that I shall be in the South of France and I shall report anyone I see there. If the message is that the countryside is open but people cannot do something as simple as casting their vote. there is a lack of reason.

There are serious concerns. Certainly, the Government will get the message that they are unlikely to receive support from our party if the postponement goes beyond 7th June. Having said that, it is clear that this Bill will pass into law.

I should declare an interest. I am involved in organising our local election campaigns, which have already started. Not only have we printed leaflets bearing the date 3rd May but we have delivered them through letterboxes. That gives us an excuse to print some more leaflets to tell people that, after all, the election will be on 7th June. But our party has never been averse to printing more leaflets.

Another concern is expenses. I agree with the point raised by my noble friend Lady Hamwee about rich and poor parties. But there is also a concern that if campaigns are to last much longer even the revised expense limit for those who print lots of leaflets will not be enough. I am advised that if there is a deferred election because of the death of a candidate the expense limit is doubled to allow for the re-election. I would have thought that a doubling of the expense limit was more sensible than a 50 per cent increase. However, 50 per cent is welcome.

I turn to postal votes. RPA Circular No. 440, which I believe my noble friend quoted, states that, The arrangements for the elections on 3 May will he transferred to 7 June by the Bill. Electors who have applied for postal votes for 3 May only can therefore continue to be included on the postal voters list for 7 June". One is not sure where to look for the changes to the rules which allow that to take place. The position is fairly strict. If one makes application for a postal vote for an election on a particular day it applies to that day. Can the Government tell the House whether that will be covered in subsequent regulations—if not, how it will be dealt with—so that returning officers are absolutely clear that, as a matter of course, if they have received postal vote applications for 3rd May they should be transferred to 7th June, unless the electors indicate otherwise?

There is also a question about the inspection of nomination papers and consents to nomination. That may not be something which a lot of people do in this country, but in parts of the world where there is experience of electoral fraud and forgery that happens. There is provision in Rule 9 of the Local Elections (Principal Areas) Rules 1986 for the inspection of nominations which have been submitted following nomination day. The question is: which nomination day now applies to that? Can nominations which were submitted and accepted before nomination day two days ago now be inspected, or does one have to wait until after the next nomination day in early May?

Finally, I am confused—perhaps it is my fault—about the particular electoral registers which are involved in these elections. It is clear from the circular sent out that the register which tells one who is qualified to vote is the new rolling register to be published in early May. I am not clear about the qualification for signing nomination papers for these elections because we have had a series of different dates. Which register will be in force for those people who sign nomination papers up to and including the new nomination day? These are important matters. Unless the Government get the amended rules and system right people will find themselves, through no fault of their own, in difficult circumstances.

If there is to be a new document to amend the Local Elections (Principal Areas) Rules for England and Wales when is it likely to be available? How extensive do the Government believe the required changes to the rules will be?

5.5 p.m.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I welcome the introduction of the Bill as the right thing to do in dire circumstances, but I strongly believe that the Government made the decision about whether or not to delay the local elections a great deal more difficult for themselves than it needed to be. Undoubtedly, they have let the timing of the general election cloud the issue of whether or not the local elections should be postponed. To the extent that Ministers backed themselves very deeply into a corner by making dire predictions of what would be the consequences for the tourism industry of this country if the elections were delayed, that is precisely what has happened. They have ended up with the worst of all worlds. Had they not concentrated so heavily on the timing of the general election and its relationship to the local elections, the decision could have been taken a great deal earlier with less collateral damage to the tourism industry, which we greatly support and seek to shore up under very difficult circumstances.

The House should be under no illusions about the constitutional importance of moving elections, be they general elections or local elections. My noble friend Lord Norton of Louth covered those issues in considerable detail, and I am sure that the House is greatly in his debt. However, this debate emphasises the importance of your Lordships' House in terms of discussing constitutional arrangements. Although it is a convention of this House that it does not discuss what goes on in another place, it is clear from the thinness of Hansard that the guillotine was applied. It would be very difficult to argue that a thorough debate took place in the House of Commons and that every Member who wished to speak was able to put his view on this extraordinarily important and constitutionally significant issue. The debate was guillotined and the Bill sent here with all speed.

We have the ability to conduct our debates in this Chamber at our own speed. It is clear that, while the Government could well have taken a decision without all-party support in another place and got the measure through, in your Lordships' House they would have had very much more difficulty if they not been able to secure that support. As my noble friend Lady Young pointed out, when one comes to consider the question of the potential postponement of general elections, as in the past your Lordships' House has a very important role to play. Now that the decision has been taken to delay the local elections until 7th June, I urge the Government, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, who is to respond on their behalf, to consider very carefully the need for flexibility and the proposition put forward by my noble friend Lord Cope.

We are told that two clear criteria led to the postponement of the local elections: the need for politicians to focus on handling the epidemic and the feelings and sensitivities of those most directly affected. Clearly, no Minister will now stand up and make predictions about exactly where the epidemic will be in two, three or four weeks' time, or by 7th June. We do not know how much time will be required by local and central government politicians to continue to focus on handling the epidemic. It is also clear that even by 7th June both central and local government will be required to undertake a very great management task.

As to the second criterion, it is not difficult to predict that the feelings and sensitivities of those most directly affected, who have had their livelihoods taken from them in the most extraordinarily trying circumstances, will still he considerable on 7th June. The suggestion of my noble friend would at least provide a measure of flexibility. I agree with members of the Liberal Democrat Party who have said that they do not want to sign blank cheques in relation to the postponement of elections. Given the position of your Lordships' House, as I mentioned earlier, over postponing elections, clearly that is not something which this House would want to do without some very carefully defined criteria about the circumstances in which additional delay is created. I say no more about that beyond urging the Government not to stick to 7th June, chosen for no particularly obvious, scientific or closely argued reason. It was a date supplied to the Sun newspaper last Friday.

Perhaps I may raise a few points of detail. If the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams, does not have time to respond, I shall be very happy to receive a letter from him. Clause 1 deals with the circumstances of candidates who have already been nominated. Can the Minister confirm the situation as regards new candidates who have not already registered? The explanatory notes say that the deadline for new candidates in England and Wales will be extended to 10th May, but I do not see that in Clause 1. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord can put me straight on that.

As regards an additional expenditure allowance or allowing candidates to spend up to 50 per cent more, there is a provision in the Bill which states that whenever such candidates were nominated, if they have not already done so, they would have an advantage in being able to spend 50 per cent more than their opponents who might well have already spent their additional 50 per cent. I wonder what is the argument for allowing candidates, who have not yet put themselves forward, still to be able to spend 50 per cent more. Perhaps I am not correct on that.

I believe that the Minister needs to give the House further clarity about compensation. There is widespread agreement among noble Lords who have spoken that local authorities should be compensated for expenses incurred in staging elections. I believe that I heard the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, say that the Secretary of State might leave open the option of compensating independent candidates, but not those from political parties, as recognised under the law. The House deserves slightly more explanation of why that should be. It seems to discriminate in favour of one candidate against another.

Clause 7 gives a fairly wide power for the Secretary of State to bring forward consequential, transitional or supplemental provisions. It would assist the House if the Minister were able to indicate, not exactly what the measures would be, because they would be defined, but the type of areas which would be covered by the provisions. I raise these detailed points at this stage to enable the Committee stage to proceed more quickly. However, I welcome the introduction of the Bill although with a sense of deep regret at the terrible circumstances which led to it.

5.14 p.m.

Lord Hanningfield

My Lords, as many noble Lords will know, I am the leader of Essex County Council and therefore have a direct interest in the elections. I am standing again. I have already printed my leaflets. Therefore, I have already incurred some expense. But I am not asking for compensation for that. I agree with noble Lords who have said today that candidates should not be reimbursed for expenses already incurred, but certainly councils' expenses should be reimbursed. I may return to that in a moment.

Essex was the first county with an outbreak of the foot and mouth disease. It was first found there. I live in a village which had one of the first signs saying, "You are now entering a foot and mouth restricted area". For many weeks I have been saying that we should know what we are doing. There has been total confusion in local government over the past few weeks. Although the position has now been clarified by the Government, I wish that that had been done earlier. I have many friends in Devon and Cumbria, and it was quite apparent two or three weeks ago that there could be no county council elections in those counties. I come from a farming background and I know of the chaos and crisis in those two counties. In the rural counties, such as Devon and Cumbria, most local government members represent the countryside.

Several noble Lords have referred to the confusion and I, too, should like to concentrate on it. I am the leader of a council which had planned an annual meeting. I ask the Minister to clarify the situation as regards such meetings. Clearly, there can be no annual meetings of councils with elections pending until after those elections have taken place. Therefore, it should be stated in the Bill that the annual meetings of councils with forthcoming elections should he held afterwards. I gather from the Explanatory Notes that the measure is designed for all councils because there may be by-elections which affect the balance of power in such councils. Any council can now have its annual meeting in June, but I should like clarification of when those meetings should be held. As has already been said, this affects fire and police authorities where in particular the county members could alter the balance of power. I should like some clarity on those issues.

Management of a county will be very difficult for the next month or two because, as has already been said today, by the end of June we have to submit our proposals for the new modernisation agenda. I hope that the Government will allow some latitude in the dates because if we are not to have elections until early June, and if we have our annual meeting in the middle of that month, it will be impossible to submit proposals to the Government by the end of June for the reform of local government structures. I hope that the Government will comment on that.

My noble friend Lady Young spoke about meetings. We had some planned for the new council after May. As the leader of the council, I shall have to consider how we can manage the business of the council until we have an annual meeting in June. It is difficult because in Essex the Labour leader is retiring and many of my most able councillors are not standing again, mainly because of age. All three parties will have quite a change-over of county councillors. Many of them have planned holidays and visits with their wives to see their children. There is quite a difficult management problem for my county over the next few months. Both my noble friend Lady Young and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, referred to this matter. I hope that the House will understand our difficulty.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth and with my noble friend Lady Young that this Bill raises constitutional issues. We have had certainty in local government about elections. Now, for the first time in my 30 years' experience, it is being changed. I support the Bill because of the crisis in the country, but this is something which we would not wish to see again. I hope that we can do something about the constitutional arrangements for the local government elections so that there is some certainty about our election dates. I support the Bill at this stage, but I wish that we had had it earlier.

5.19 p.m.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, I shall speak specifically about Northern Ireland. Over the past four years since 1996 and the alleged IRA ceasefire, a great deal of legislation has passed through your Lordships' House in direct contradiction of what was taking place in other parts of the United Kingdom. We were told that Northern Ireland was different: the political circumstances and the terror campaign together put Northern Ireland in a different category from the rest of the United Kingdom.

In this Bill we now have the assertion that we must not draw a distinction between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom because of the foot and mouth disease outbreak. As has already been said, there has been one case of foot and mouth disease in Northern Ireland. The disease has been contained due to the excellent work of the Minister of Agriculture in Northern Ireland.

We have heard the Prime Minister say repeatedly that to postpone elections would send out the wrong signal to potential tourists. At this time of the year Northern Ireland is influenced to a great extent by the number of tourists it can attract to its shores.

It would be the wish of the majority of the people in Northern Ireland that they be allowed to hold their local government elections on 16th May as scheduled. Therefore, one must ask whether these local government elections are being postponed because of foot and mouth disease. The answer to that is an emphatic "No". Many by-elections have been held over the past 30 turbulent years. People have been killed because of their religion, the way they speak and the way they vote.

In the wake of internment being introduced in August 1971 there was a real crisis in Northern Ireland. In 1972 many nationalists resigned their local authority seats in protest at the way that internment had been introduced. That did not stop the elections. The then Conservative Government allowed elections to take place. They said that they could not stop the elections taking place. That meant that bigoted unionists, who were totally opposed to the nationalist beliefs of those who had resigned their seats, walked in and took seats on an unopposed return. That was a clear violation of the democratic wishes of the people in those local government areas.

Nineteen seventy-two was one of the worst years of the Northern Ireland troubles. Over 472 people were killed in that year. Early in that year one of my party colleagues in the dock area of Belfast, in which I was also a councillor, resigned his seat. That meant that there had to be a by-election. I spoke to the Minister in charge of Northern Ireland at the time. I said to him, "Could we not postpone this election?" because if we did not it would mean that a unionist who was diametrically opposed to my political beliefs would take that seat. I decided that we could not let them have that seat. What happened then was that I could not get a candidate to fight the seat. The IRA threatened that whoever was to stand for it would be killed. In fact at the last minute I had to put forward my wife.

At this time there is no justifiable reason to prevent the Northern Ireland local government elections going ahead. The Government should take that into consideration.

5.23 p.m.

Lord Biffen

My Lords, this mini debate is but a token of what it should be, but it is infinitely greater than what was offered by the other place when considering the measure. It is a matter of constitutional import. The speech by my noble friend Lord Norton emphasised that. I should like to try to underline some of his comments. It is a simple test. Imagine that this was taking place not just ahead of a general election but just after a general election. Suppose we then had the foot and mouth epidemic and we had ahead of us the local authority elections. I cannot believe that a government would argue that those elections should be postponed.

The whole history of life is this determination to hold elections come what may. During the war there may have been a party truce but there was never a suspension of the by-elections, many of which carried a message that reverberated across the nation and to the fighting front. What is proposed is not what would have been suggested in the alternative theoretical circumstances outlined. What would have been suggested would have been a means of identifying in Devon and in Cumbria where there should be special arrangements. Maybe there were special arrangements nationally to make voting that much easier. We have those circumstances now. Just as for the 1945 general election—there may be problems of hybridity—special arrangements could have been designed for those areas acutely affected by the foot and mouth disease. The Lancashire seats affected by Wakes Weeks were given different voting occasions from the general election that took place in the spring of that year.

The problem has arisen because of the proximity of the local authority elections and the intended chosen date for the general election. It is not so much because of the problems which will affect an election in the areas of the foot and mouth disease, dire though they will be, I do not deny. I cannot believe that the Government would not secure quite a high turn-out in the areas affected because the voters will wish to make their opinions known and their political influence felt. I do not think that we would have a situation where there was a minimal vote in the areas affected by foot and mouth, although I agree that their differences should be recognised.

What is at stake here is the welcome decision by the Prime Minister to see that this foot and mouth scourge required national political leadership. It required his identification with the scourge and with all the plans that had to be co-ordinated to give most effect to countering it. He could not set that role aside as a part-time occupation in order to lead a party in the general election. Nor could he put to one side the task of being the supremo in fighting foot and mouth to take time off to fight a general election.

That is the background to this device. That is the real underlying constitutional case to be considered. We are being asked to nod this legislation through. I shall nod it through. But the time will come when the annals of these two or three days' debates will be looked at by students outside this place and people concerned with our constitutional liberties. They will see that we have been sleepwalking and it is only in this place that there is any reasonable voice raised to alert us to the danger.

5.27 p.m.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, with your Lordships' agreement, I should like to make a very small intervention, not on the scale of the one that has just been made.

The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, explained in introducing the Bill that there had been no problems in Scotland and Wales in voting on the same day on two electoral systems. Therefore, it was thought that it was quite possible to do that in Northern Ireland.

As someone who was on duty outside quite a large busy polling station on the day when the Scots Parliament and local government were elected on different election systems there were problems for some people. It may be helpful to the Government if I point out those problems now before we come to Monday and the Committee stage.

The problems were twofold. The first problem was that some voters came thinking that they were taking part in a single poll for two different bodies. They knew what the two bodies were. They thought it was a single poll. They were confronted with two ballot papers, which surprised them. They thought they had to vote for the same party on both papers. Some were confused because their particular view about the election was that they wanted to vote for different parties. Confusion could have been avoided if there had been an official explanation that this was not the case. The parties had been saying it and it had been aired in the media quite often. Nevertheless, a significant number of people were confused by that.

I raised the other problem during the passage of the Scotland Bill. I was told that it would not happen, but it did. I refer to the colour coding which involved two different colours for the two bodies which were to be elected. That is what is planned in the Bill. It was difficult for people who were colour blind. The reason for that was that colours had to be found for the ballot papers that were not associated with political parties. The colours with which we ended up were difficult for voters—it turned out that it was mostly male voters—to distinguish between. It was a real problem because not only were the ballot papers different but the ballot boxes were marked with the same colour as that which was on the ballot paper. I do not know whether it should be legislated for, but the Government need to ensure that the colours are bright and of a kind which are distinguishable by people who have that problem.

Those may not be big problems on the ground but they are sufficient to upset people. I should have thought that, with the sensitivities in Northern Ireland, both points are worth thinking about.

5.30 p.m.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest in this matter in that I am a member of Suffolk County Council. As a local authority member, I was warmed by the sudden focus on and interest in the county council elections. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate and have made such interesting contributions from a variety of perspectives. In that regard, I am especially grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, and to my noble friend Lord Smith of Clifton for focusing on the provisions in the Bill relating to Northern Ireland, which actually form the bulk of it but have received rather less attention than they would otherwise have deserved.

When I was re-elected to the county council in May 1997, I knew exactly how long my term of office would be and was able to pencil into my diary the date of the election. As my noble friend Lord Rennard pointed out, since even war in the Falklands had failed to disrupt the local democratic processes, it seemed like a fairly safe bet for me to do that. Even until recent weeks, when it became increasingly clear that it would be highly inappropriate and damaging to the democratic process to hold a general election in May, there was a fairly widespread view among local authorities that the local elections could go ahead in all but the areas worst affected by the foot and mouth crisis.

In practical terms there is no reason why the elections could not have gone ahead. The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, conceded that point at the beginning of the debate. Of the 24 million people who are represented by county and unitary authorities affected by this legislation, a relatively tiny number of people would have serious reason to suppose that their participation in the democratic process would be significantly hampered by the election being held on 3rd May. Postal deliveries are carrying on almost unaffected, suggesting that political parties would be able to deliver their leaflets. Indeed, by recognising the longer campaign and extending the expenses limit accordingly, it is likely that more people will be walking around the countryside delivering more pieces of paper in this extended campaign. People in rural areas are still getting out and about to work, school and shops, and would therefore have been able to vote. In fact, as my noble friend Lord Greaves pointed out, the fact that the census is still due to take place demonstrates that the reasons for delaying the election are not based on practical considerations.

The real reason is to provide a fig leaf for the otherwise appropriate decision not to go ahead with the general election on the date which, if the media are to be believed—it appears that the Sun usually is—was pencilled in as long ago as 1997. While I agree that holding a general election during a crisis of this kind would have been highly undesirable, I am less than happy to think that the Government's unwillingness to hold national elections after a set of potentially bad local election results has in any way influenced their decision to delay local elections. There is every difference in the world between choosing not to exercise the Prime Minister's right to set his own date for the election and a decision to postpone dates which are fixed.

What really concerns me is the proposal from the noble Lord, Lord Cope, that the legislation should provide an open-ended delay. In my view, that would represent an entirely unjustifiable and dangerous control by the executive over local democratic processes and must be resisted at all costs. There are serious practical implications from this step. Local authorities are big business. My own authority in Suffolk is the largest employer in the county, with some 23,000 full-time equivalent staff. The various budgets come to over £1 billion a year. Local authorities are run like businesses, with planning and budgetary frameworks that affect the lives of people in their areas and run to millions of pounds. These cycles are predicated on four-year electoral cycles and should not be altered lightly.

The uncertainty created by the open-ended delay proposed would be horrendous and would have serious practical results. For example, in Suffolk the structure plan is due to be determined within the next few weeks, creating the framework within which many thousands of new homes will be built in the county. It is a decision worth billions of pounds. As the noble Baroness, Lady Young, pointed out, the development control planning system could be severely hindered by such delays. As the noble Baroness has recognised that, it seems strange that her Benches support open-ended delay. Some 25 per cent of councillors are due to stand down in May. While they may be prepared to hang on for another four weeks, any delay beyond that will see the gradual erosion of their numbers, leaving large areas of the country unrepresented at county and unitary level. In finely balanced authorities, political control could change without a single vote being cast anywhere. That would be a travesty of democracy.

Even with a one month delay, there are some serious issues to be addressed, either today or in Committee on Monday. As we have heard, annual general meetings are due to take place in May, as are those of the police authorities and combined fire authorities. Those are all affected by the delay. I should like some clarification today as to how these changes will be managed.

Councils are due to make their final decisions about the new structures required under the Local Government Act. That must be done by June. That means that new councils, with around a third of their number being new councillors, and with many having changed political control altogether, will be asked to take these important decisions within days of an election. Will the Government consider a dispensation for those authorities affected by the legislation so that they can make their structural changes later, perhaps by the end of July?

Local councils are currently in a pre-election purdah, which affects the style of their public announcements and the way in which public relations are dealt with. Is that purdah to be lifted after Royal Assent and then reintroduced, or will it remain indefinitely?

We on these Benches are greatly concerned about compensation for individual candidates and hope that we can have some clarification on that issue, either today or in Committee on Monday. We should like to press the Government to give more thought to the issue of freepost leaflets for council elections.

My noble friend Lady Hamwee said that the issues are finely balanced. I am very grateful indeed to the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for giving us an intellectual framework within which we can consider the issues. On balance, we will support the legislation. We will not impede it in any way. However, we have significant reservations. Some of them may be addressed through discussion today and on Monday, but others will remain a difference between us.

5.38 p.m.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. I am bound to point out that, apart from the noble Lord on the Front Bench opposite, the burden of the debate has been borne by the Liberal Democrats and the Official Opposition. There has been a distinct lack of interest from elsewhere. The contributions to the debate have been of an extremely high standard. I am sure that the Government will take particular note of that.

My noble friend Lord Cope said that it is an extraordinary Bill. As the debate has proceeded, those words have seemed prescient. Running throughout the debate has been a very real cynicism as to why the Bill has been brought forward at all. Of course there are problems over the county council elections and the proper democratic processes, but the fact that the election postponement was first seen in the Sun was a poor way for the matter to have been dealt with. There are other and more appropriate places for the announcement of the postponement of elections to be made. It might have been better if both Houses of Parliament had been given the benefit of the Prime Minister's thoughts on the matter before the press were able to announce the decision with such fervour and vigour.

The Bill delays the county council elections, but we have all agreed today that it concerns not only those elections. The only rational reason why the Bill has been introduced is because the Prime Minister wishes to delay the general election. Of course that rationale came about after he had made a field trip into the country and finally, I believe, saw for himself the terrible constraints under which people in rural areas are operating at present. I do not think that anyone would want to deny the difficulties, concerns, problems, unhappiness and misery affecting many parts of the country. Not all regions are affected, but where there are problems from foot and mouth disease, those are very real.

Furthermore, no one would want to deny the difficulty of trying to manage the democratic process for people living in the affected parts of the country. Those problems, too, are very real indeed. As has already been pointed out, several candidates are farmers, who are now stuck behind their five-bar gates displaying notices stating, "Come no further. Foot and mouth disease". They would find it extremely hard to canvas effectively or to fulfil their democratic duties. Equally, it would be hard for people to get to them to ensure that they can receive material relating to the democratic process, even if they are not directly taking part in it.

But why will all this be over by 7th June? Why has that date been plucked out as the day by which everything will have been brought under control? The situation as regards foot and mouth disease will have improved to such an extent that the Prime Minister will be able to say with full confidence that all the problems that existed for 3rd May will not equally exist for 7th June. That is the reason why my party has suggested that to put a final date of 7th June on to the face of the Bill is unwise. It would have been much better to leave the date open so that. if necessary, the process could be extended—if not for the whole of the country, then for those areas where foot and mouth disease might still be as prevalent as it is now. That is the reason why we have suggested that the firm date of 7th June should not be put into the Bill in the way proposed. If that is agreed, we shall not have to repeat this debate if the situation should remain the same. However, my cynicism urges me to think that 7th June will be the date, whatever happens. None the less, we still have to keep up the pretence that we are discussing only the county council elections and not the general election.

The debate has covered not only the merits or demerits of the Bill, it has also touched on the extremely important constitutional issues which have been raised by what is being proposed. The postponement of an election in this country, one of the seats of democracy, is more than unusual: it is an absolutely unique occasion. My noble friend Lord Norton, along with the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and, to an extent, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, have all underlined—along with my noble friend Lady Young—the real concerns that have been raised about the constitutional issues relating to delaying elections. I am certain that that does not have to be emphasised in this House, but I hope that this will be taken on board and that such an event will not take place again without all the detail of such an expediency being worked out very carefully indeed.

Apart from the problems associated with foot and mouth disease, the matter of tourism has been raised in our debate. I know that this formed part of the important debate held yesterday in your Lordships' House. Not only are farmers affected by the foot and mouth outbreak, tourism also is suffering, in particular in those areas which normally welcome many tourists at this time of year. Tourism has been high on the agenda of Ministers going around the country and I understand that it has formed an important part of the rationale behind the Bill. Of course we accept that that aspect of this situation must be taken into account.

The practical issues relating to the delay have been spelt out very well. We are lucky to have in this House a number of noble Lords who not only will he standing in the local elections, but who have great experience of them. I refer to the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, my noble friend Lord Hanningfield and the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy. They have drawn attention to all the details that must be attended to. Those points were also mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, who probably knows more about elections that the rest of the House put together. The practical issues surrounding this decision should not be underestimated; they are serious and they need to be dealt with properly.

I take some issue with the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, who seemed to suggest that the Conservatives believe that everyone should benefit from swathes of compensation as a result of what has gone wrong. That is not the case and never has been. My honourable friend in the other place raised the issue of what might happen if a great deal of money had been spent, but it has never been our intention that individual candidates should be compensated. I should like to make the Conservative position quite clear: we do not think that people should be compensated. The question of independent candidates who are funding themselves because they have no party behind them was raised and perhaps has not yet been resolved. However, in common with all noble Lords who have spoken today, we believe that, from the candidates' point of view, this is probably just bad luck which will have to be dealt with in some other way.

A great part of the Bill is devoted to Northern Ireland. We were lucky that the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, was in his place and was thus able to speak in the gap. We are grateful for his contribution, as we are to the noble Lord, Lord Smith. Had the noble Lord not spoken, those provisions would have passed without notice, and two-thirds of the Bill would have been without comment. That is why we need the experience of Northern Ireland Members. I hope that we shall have the benefit of that experience again when we consider the Bill in Committee on Monday. That will ensure that the provisions relating to Northern Ireland will be thoroughly scrutinised.

I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, made an extremely powerful speech, explaining to the House how Northern Ireland has survived over the past years and how the democratic processes over here have not always made it easy for those in Northern Ireland. I hope very much that the noble Lord will be able to come to the House on Monday. As other speakers have said, we need to scrutinise this Bill as carefully as possible. It is vital that this House undertakes the duty—the time for which was not allocated in the other place—of examining the detail of this legislation. In this country a Bill of this magnitude—however short it may be—cannot be seen to go through without having been given the most careful thought. We must ensure that it is put forward correctly, all the issues having been taken into account.

From this side of the Chamber we shall certainly do that—no doubt many other noble Lords will join us—to ensure that the Bill, to which ultimately we shall agree, has been made clear in its detail. Our agreement to it has been clearly stated by the Leader of the Opposition in the other place and by my noble friend Lord Cope. However, we do not believe that such a Bill, and in particular one which has so many question marks over the reasoning behind it, should simply coast through both Houses.

5.49 p.m.

The Attorney-General (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, as the House knows, I have had a very long connection with Wales and with those who farm in Wales. The troubles that have afflicted our colleagues who are concerned with farming all over the United Kingdom were reinforced when a number of us made the rather sad journey to Anglesey for the funeral of our late friend Lord Cledwyn. It was almost exactly the time that foot and mouth was discovered in Anglesey. So we proceed on the common ground that we feel deep sorrow and sympathy for all those who suffer.

The two characteristics that struck me in listening to the debate—I have had the pleasure of hearing every speech—were that one finds not only expertise in this House but also independence of mind and thought. Both characteristics are sometimes inconvenient to someone in my position, but not on this occasion.

It seemed to me that the debate separated itself into two constituents. First, there were some heavy-hitting contributions on wider constitutional matters. I agree that they are not to be overlooked simply because we are dealing with local, rather than national, elections. The second constituent concerned particular points of question.

The noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, with his customary courtesy, said that it might be helpful if particular questions of detail were answered in writing. Other noble Lords took the same approach. I shall take up that offer, if I may. I am not a Home Office Minister, but I undertake on behalf of the Home Office that all questions will be answered—probably, I hope, in a compendious letter, which should go out tomorrow—so that we will, if at all possible, have settled some outstanding issues before we come to the Committee stage. A number of your Lordships suggested that as a sensible outcome, and that will be done.

A number of questions were asked as to why postponement was necessary at all. I detected incipient schizophrenia in some of the speeches, which seemed to be uncertain as to whether this was a good idea or something to be abominated at all costs. How those different approaches are to be reconciled I cannot venture to suggest.

The best summary, if I may say so, was the one which came from the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. She said there was a feeling—I take her phrase—that it would be unseemly to press on with local elections in early May. I think that that feeling was generally expressed in every corner of the House.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble and learned Lord, but, in the conversation which I had with my noble friend, the description "unseemly" in fact applied to the prospect of a general election.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, invites me to talk my way out of that one—and, accordingly, I shall. The phrase struck my mind as being equally appropriate for the concerns and problems that people have about local elections.

The noble Baroness asked about the compensation scheme. I can give an undertaking on behalf of the Home Secretary that there will be consultation with parties on the form of the scheme. She asked for a specific undertaking that the compensation scheme is not intended to be used for candidates. I give that undertaking.

The noble Baroness asked whether Clause 1(3) should be in the Bill or in the principal area rules. She asked a linked question—it came at the same time—about whether the Bill extends to town and parish councils. The advice that we have is that the changes need to be made in primary legislation. The answer to the second question is yes. She further asked a point of detail about the term of members of police and fire authorities. Her question was whether the change applied at both ends. The answer is yes.

I am seeking to go through my response in the order in which the questions were put. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, introduced a question—which was further developed by both the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, and the noble Lord, Lord Biffen—about whether or not we were in danger of overlooking the constitutional consequences. That was developed further—in particular by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, from the Liberal Democrat Benches—into a question of whether or not we should have a written constitution and whether or not there should be entrenched mechanisms to prevent elections being postponed. That is an interesting debate for another day or days. I expect that we shall return to it.

The fact that I respond in that way does not mean that I undervalue the debate. Local elections are in a different position from general elections in terms of flexibility. I do not know which constitutions abroad have entrenched provisions about local elections. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, may want to offer the answer that if we had a written constitution—if we wished to go down that route—we could accommodate particular provisions about local elections.

It is an important step. We should not overlook the fact that local democracy is an important constituent of our national life and democracy. I take the point that, simply because this is a one month delay, we should not say that it does not really matter. It is fair to say that any objective reader of our debate today would not be able to conclude that we had rushed at this issue without looking at the more fundamental questions.

The question of expatriate voters was put to me by the noble Baroness, Lady Young. The position is that returning officers will have been able to advise anyone asking for guidance that 12th March was the cut-off date for the election on 3rd May. The next target—to get on the register to be published by 1st May—was today. If intending voters are not registered now, they would not have been registered for 3rd May in any event.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble and learned Lord, but perhaps I may ask for clarification. He gave the date when overseas voters had to register; it clearly has moved from March to the May date. Can it not move further now that the elections are to be in June? That was really my concern.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am dealing with the present state of the law. I shall certainly take on board the noble Baroness's question, but plainly, as things presently stand, I have no authority—however much I would wish to have it—to simply by diktat alter the law of this country.

The noble Baroness also raised a question about educational institutes. Of course we expect returning officers to be sensitive in their choice of polling stations. I shall allow myself a very modest tease in the spirit of harmony that has informed our debate. The general elections in 1983 and in 1987 both took place in June, I believe, at the imperious command of the then Prime Minister, who, I believe, was the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, raised a number of questions. I believe that he had been courteous enough to give advance notice. I have all the answers, which I can repeat, but it may be more convenient to your Lordships if they are written. I was very grateful that those detailed questions had been notified to officials in advance.

I do not want to sound patronising—it is the last thing I have in mind—but I found the speech and contributions of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, extremely important, as they would have been even had they been free-standing and quite apart from our present debate. Much of what he said resonates with all of us—it certainly resonates in my mind—and it is very important that one should not simply fix one's glance on the pavement of our present details. One should cast one's mind wider and more reflectively, as the noble Lord has done.

The noble Lord asked whether or not we had looked at other options. Yes. We considered the matter—this is a reply to the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, although it may not be a perfectly satisfactory answer to its recipient—and we came to the conclusion that to defer elections for a month and to set a firm date was the better, most prudent and wisest course. That is not capable of scientific analysis or defence. As the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, said, it is an issue of a balance of judgment which we conscientiously made.

I recognise that there are alternatives. I do not believe—I entirely endorse what the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Scott, said—that it would have been prudent or responsible to have an open-ended postponement. First, that would have been deeply disheartening to those who are affected by the foot and mouth outbreak—not just farmers but all those who are engaged in the industry of tourism, which is so critically important to the economy and to the life of the nation. To continue the uncertainty would have been a deeply irresponsible course to take. That is the conclusion that we came to, having. of course, considered the possible options.

I have dealt with the question of compensation. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, deployed his ammunition on a much wider front and I hope that I have dealt with his queries on the basis that they are general ones. They are important, but they relate to a wider issue and are not specific to this debate.

I am familiar with the argument about fixed terms. In my experience it is normally deployed by opposition parties and is indignantly rejected by those in government—as we happily are at present. That is not a perfectly purist approach to constitutional matters, but it seems to be the experience of us all.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, asked why the pending by-election in Islington was being postponed. The answer is that we have to treat Greater London as a single entity. It certainly surprised me to learn that there are over 380 farms in London, including over 100 where livestock are kept.

The noble Lord asked about the inspection of nomination papers and consents. Again, I hope that that will be included in the compendious reply. The noble Lord nods. I am most grateful to him for his courtesy in indicating that he is content with that.

The noble Lord also asked a specific question about postal votes; namely, where is the proposition to be found in the Bill that postal votes for 3rd May will be transferred to 7th June? The Bill is not required to make that point explicit. Those who have applied for a postal vote for 3rd May will be entitled to use it on 7th June, because it will be for the same election, although that election has been postponed.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, invited my answer to the question: which version of the electoral register will apply to nomination papers; will there be a new version of the principal areas rule? The Bill provides that any nomination that was valid for 3rd May on the basis of the register then in force will be valid for 7th June. My advice is that a new version of the principal areas rule is not required.

A question was posed about the census. Census takers working in the countryside have been instructed to respect all appropriate restrictions and to respect the wishes of the farming community. Arrangements on a practical basis will be made specific to the census rather than to participation in an election.

The noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, asked about the closing date for nominations on 10th May. It is based on the normal election timetable. I did not know this, but I am happy to share with the House my newly acquired knowledge that 10th May is the 19th working day before polling day and, working backwards, one gets that terminal.

The noble Viscount asked why we intend to compensate only independents. The decision was the result of consultation with all the main opposition parties. Although that is not binding on the noble Viscount himself, it was agreed by representatives of his party.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for addressing the point. I was not concerned with whether or not that should be done. My point related to whether there was a danger of discriminatory practice in compensating some and not others.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, that is a fair question. My answer is that not all discrimination is wrong, providing that it is discreet and justifiable—and approved by the Conservative Party.

We have yet to finalise the details of the scheme to compensate local authorities for additional electoral expenditure. What we are doing is meeting additional legitimate expenditure consequential—I stress this point—to the postponement, and not expenditure which may derive from other consequences of the foot and mouth outbreak. I hope that we shall be able to publicise the details before 7th June.

The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, asked about annual meetings. They will take place. I recognise the logistical and practical difficulties specified by the noble Lord; they cannot be argued against. The meetings will take place with reference to the election date. So if the election date is postponed, the period in which the annual meeting is to be held will similarly be postponed. We shall use the order-making power in Clause 7 to delay the timing of annual meetings of police and fire authorities.

My noble friend Lord Fitt asked a number of questions about Northern Ireland. As always, my noble friend speaks with authority about issues that have engaged him for so long. We believe that there is no reason for Northern Ireland to remain separate in its arrangements. Northern Ireland is presently unable to hold local elections coincident with a general election. The Bill contains a provision allowing it to hold local elections and a general election on the same day.

Your Lordships have assured me, on the basis of the ex cathedra pronouncements in the Sun, that the general election will take place on 7th June. Obviously, I always take on board what is told to me by your Lordships, particularly when it comes from the Sun. I do not know when the general election will be held. I hope that it will be early, so that we shall lay aside any questions of the identity of the next government. But I simply do not know. It is ultimately a matter for the Prime Minister's good judgment. Speaking of which—the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, is not in his place but he was present earlier—it is worth re-reading a stable companion of the Sun, which is bigger in format and has fewer pictures and longer words; namely, The Times. I can safely paraphrase an extract from the noble Lord's article because, unlike the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, he is not here to correct me. He said that if matters were postponed from the anticipated day of 3rd May, that would confirm to him that the Prime Minister was the decent man he had hoped he was four years ago. I leave your Lordships with that thought.

The noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, asked about the combined poll. Statistically, the number of spoilt ballot papers in Scotland in 1999 was comparable to the number in an ordinary election in the United Kingdom. The noble Baroness spoke about colours. None of the ballot papers ought to be bright or cheerful in colour, because that would inevitably induce all those voting to vote for the Labour Party. If they were gloomy and funereal, I suppose that would attract the Conservative element such as it presently remains.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords—

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, perhaps I may just finish. This is too good to miss—or, as the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, said on one occasion, "I am really enjoying this". I should not have said that because it was immediately on her resignation; so I hope that history is not about to repeat itself.

Ballot papers can be colour-coded—white and possibly lilac. They should not cause the same confusion as I accept may have occurred on the previous occasion. If—I am told magisterially—someone puts the wrong paper in the wrong box, it will be reconciled to the correct box before the count.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, the statement was in the Bill. It is quite correct, and that was done. The question of spoilt ballot papers is not completely relevant. The question is whether people voted for someone for whom they did not mean to vote—that is, they voted for one of the bodies because they believed they had to vote in the same way for both. That was my question. That needs to be made plain somewhere, not necessarily in the Bill.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I shall certainly take on board that suggestion. If it can be done without legislative means, plainly it needs to be looked at carefully.

I have only a few seconds more because I am in the 20th minute of my response. I simply want to repeat the fact that this has been a high-quality debate. The briefing note always tells one to say that, and your Lordships will know that I never do. It was a very good debate. It would be helpful to those who sometimes scoff at the nature of the parliamentary process and do not recognise the virtue and continuing value of this House if they were to read it. What was lacking—or almost lacking—was a partisan approach to what we all know is a national problem. It is not of our choosing or of our making. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

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