HL Deb 11 July 2003 vol 651 cc611-8

1.18 p.m.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 18th June be approved [23rd Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am moving this Motion on behalf of my noble friend Lord Rooker. The purpose of the order is to provide London's voters with information which will help them to make an informed choice at future GLA elections. It entitles candidates at future London mayoral elections to have an election address included in a booklet, which will be delivered to every elector in London. The order seeks to achieve that in a way that is fair to candidates and cost-effective for taxpayers.

Noble Lords will remember that the issue of a free mailshot was a topic of some controversy in the run-up to the first GLA elections. At that time, the Government listened to the arguments of noble Lords and amended the Greater London Authority Act to provide, at the first GLA elections, for the publication and free delivery of a booklet containing election addresses prepared by the mayoral candidates. Parliament also provided an order-making power for the Secretary of State to make arrangements for the publication and delivery of candidates' election addresses at future GLA elections. This new order exercises that power.

As noble Lords will have seen from the draft order, the proposed arrangements for future ordinary GLA elections are largely a repeat of those that were made for the first elections. I shall begin by running through those parts of the proposals that are the same as for the 2000 elections.

As before, each mayoral candidate will be entitled to have an election address included in a booklet that will be produced by the Greater London returning officer and delivered to every elector in Greater London. If there are 15 or fewer mayoral candidates, each will be entitled to an election address covering up to two A5 sides, but if there are 16 or more candidates that drops to one A5 side each. As at the first election, a candidate's election address can contain only information relating to the election. Candidates may not include advertising, material included with a view to commercial gain, or any indecent, offensive or obscene material. Nor will they be able to include material which, if published, would be contrary to the criminal law. Finally, the election addresses must comply with the necessary printing requirements. But within those basic requirements candidates have a good deal of freedom to design their election addresses as they wish.

As before, the Greater London returning officer must exclude from the booklet any election addresses that do not comply with the rules on content or form and any addresses that come from candidates who have not made their contribution towards printing costs. That brings me on to costs.

The funding arrangements are also the same as in 2000. Each mayoral candidate wishing to have an address included will have to contribute £10,000 towards the costs of printing the booklet. It is very unlikely that those contributions will exceed the total printing costs of the booklet, but if there is a surplus the Greater London returning officer has to divide the excess equally between the candidates and return it to them. Delivery of the booklet will be free to candidates; it will be at the GLA's expense.

It is too early yet for the Greater London returning officer to be able to make firm estimates of the costs to the GLA of printing and delivering the booklet for the 2004 GLA elections. But his current estimate is that the total cost will be about £1.3 million, which is the same amount as the Government spent on the booklet in 2000. The estimate breaks down as a GLA spend of around £600,000 on publication and £700,000 on delivery. As I have said, those arrangements are largely the same as the ones that were made for the 2000 election. However, there are a few updates and changes to the arrangements, and it may help if I explain those in turn.

The first update will give consistency between the provisions and the arrangements that have been made for election addresses at local mayoral elections. The draft order says that mayoral candidates must not include in their election addresses material referring to other candidates. That prohibition is intended to ensure that candidates use the election address for its proper purpose—to promote themselves as candidates. It should not stop candidates from referring in their election addresses to political parties or to particular policies or issues.

There are also two changes that arise from recommendations made by the Electoral Commission. In the 2000 booklet, candidates' election addresses appeared in alphabetical order by surname. The commission has expressed a concern that candidates with surnames at the beginning of the alphabet may benefit unfairly from that and so the order provides that, in future, election addresses should appear in an order determined by lot.

Secondly, we considered carefully whether future election booklets should include election addresses from Assembly as well as mayoral candidates. There are so many Assembly candidates—there were 222 in the 2000 election—that including them all would make the booklet very lengthy and rather impractical for voters to read. It would also be more complicated and expensive for the Greater London returning officer to produce.

However, we accept that voters may find it useful to receive some information about Assembly candidates. For that reason we are taking forward an alternative approach, which was suggested by the Electoral Commission. Unlike the first booklet, future election address booklets will have to include lists of the names, constituency and candidate descriptions for all of the candidates for the Greater London Assembly. It will also include a list of all the mayoral candidates, including anyone who does not have an election address in the booklet.

The final update reflects changes to the postal market that were brought about in the Postal Services Act 2000. At the 2000 elections the booklet had to be delivered by the Post Office, and so had to comply with the Post Office regulations governing indecent, obscene and offensive material. However, the new order allows for delivery of the booklet by organisations other than the Post Office and the responsibility for vetting the booklet is transferred to the Greater London returning officer.

Finally, I can confirm that, in my view, the provisions of the order are compatible with convention rights under the European Convention on Human Rights. As I have explained, the order simply repeats and, where necessary, updates the arrangements that were made for the election addresses at the first GLA elections. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 18th June be approved [23rd Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Evans of Temple Guiting.)

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, I had thought that I would simply thank the Minister and sit down because, as the Minister says, the order covers exactly what Parliament, in this House, decreed for the Greater London Assembly last time. However, what had escaped me was the nonsense—if I may so suggest—about listing the candidates according to some kind of lottery. I cannot understand the Electoral Commission's reasoning for that. If it is thought that people will read only the names beginning with the letter A and that they will not read through to the Ws, they will not fiddle around through a booklet trying to find the one candidate about whom they want to read who is buried somewhere in the middle with no direction as to where. I find that extraordinarily curious.

Arising from that, will the Assembly members, who will appear at the back, be listed in alphabetical order or will names be taken out of a bran tub to decide in which order they should appear? I really believe that the Minister should employ some common sense and suggest to the Electoral Commission that it rethinks that point.

My second question arises from whose imprint is on this publication. Does each candidate have to have an imprint or is it presumed that it is printed and published by the Greater London returning officer? The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, will probably be able to answer that in a flash. It must concern election expenses and how they are allocated. Half of this is paid for by the candidates, but a great deal of it is paid for by the council taxpayers in London. It is an academic question, but I would be interested in the answer.

Lord Rennard

My Lords, I could not let this occasion pass without referring to the great battle in this Chamber four years ago on the issue of Greater London mayoral candidates and their election addresses. It was interesting to hear the Minister advocating the case for the booklet and the importance of the communication, against which, four years ago, some of his predecessors fought long and hard. I was particularly interested in his observation that four years ago the cost of the operation was approximately £1.3 million, against the estimate for this time around. His predecessors suggested to me then that it would cost about £28 million. I feel somewhat vindicated by what he has said.

I note that the Minister in another place spoke of how the Government had listened to the arguments of your Lordships. I recall that they listened rather more to the assertion made by myself and the late Lord MacKay of Ardbrecknish that, if the Government would not allow the candidates to use Freepost, we would hold up the elections. We felt that it was an important issue for democracy that the communication was made by the candidates directly to the voters. So I very much welcome this order and that we are again pursuing the agreement that we made four years ago. In particular, I welcome the fact that we are retaining the feature that it will be delivered to each individual elector in London—some of us felt that that was very necessary four years ago—rather than it being delivered one per household. We know of so many houses in London with multi-occupation that it would be quite inadequate simply to address one to each household.

The method of delivery is important and requires a little more scrutiny. I assume that the GLRO—the Greater London Returning Officer—will be required to ensure that delivery by any organisation other than the Post Office would at least be to a standard that we would expect from the Post Office. Those with experience of delivery by commercial organisations will know that those organisations often fall far short of the standards expected of the Post Office and, very regrettably for our democracy, the Post Office itself has often fallen far short of what we would expect as regards its responsibilities in delivering election addresses.

On the issue of accessibility of election addresses, I particularly welcome the provision that the GLRO "may" make these available in Braille, large type or audio versions. Others have argued that this "must" be the case rather than "may". I see, however, some practical difficulties in relation just to the booklet and suggest that there are other ways that this might be done to the same effect rather better. There could be one or two A5 pages within the booklet with a number of photographs. Perhaps the candidate may prefer to have five photographs and few words, but translated into Braille that would look as though they had little to say. Other candidates may prefer to have many words and few photographs. Similar issues arise in relation to large type and audio versions.

All political parties by way of good practice for all elections should make versions of their election addresses and manifestos available in Braille, large type and audio. My suggestion is—and I hope the order may allow this—that the GLRO should say that, rather than simply being confined to making the A5 versions available in Braille, large type or audio, perhaps a prescribed form of words—say 200 words—which might fill the average A5 sheet, should be made available by each candidate which could then be made available in Braille and large type. Each candidate would be invited to make perhaps a 30 seconds or a one-minute contribution on audio tape that could be made generally available. That would be a more effective way of making the messages more accessible than simply saying that the election addresses may be provided by the GLRO in this way.

I sound a small note of regret on the booklet. Four years ago we reached a compromise to say that this would be available for the mayoral candidates but not for the candidates for the Greater London Assembly. That is regrettable when we consider that in the Scottish Parliament and in the Welsh Assembly each of the candidates for the list and for the individual constituencies is entitled to rather more than this booklet—indeed to equivalent election entitlements as were afforded to candidates to the Westminster Parliament. Therefore, I think that in future we should think of doing that.

I note that the Government have said in response to consultation, that there may be 200 candidates for the GLA and that the addresses could not be covered in one booklet. However, it seems to me that in this day and age 14 editions of a booklet could be produced allowing candidates for an individual assembly area to have their say. Perhaps the candidates at the top of the list should be featured with rather more prominence than simply being listed with their parties.

We are all concerned with diminishing turnouts in elections. Making more information available of this nature would be good in partially addressing the problem of lack of voter information, leading to such poor turnouts. It is a particularly welcome and excellent idea that the booklet may be on the Internet. I hope that that will become the form for many more of these things in the future. If we were to extend the facility to the candidates for the Greater London Assembly it may also be a cheap way for them to gain a little more publicity. They will not have as much as an A5 sheet themselves, but a small number of words and a reference to a website which they themselves establish would at least enable some voters to gain more information about them.

I raise an issue as perhaps a suggestion for the GLRO, who no doubt will read the debate in due course. It seems to me that this is a matter for his discretion. A way to save costs on this operation would be for delivery of the booklets to be combined with the delivery of the poll card for the election. I have made that suggestion a number of times. I think it would be a considerable saving to the public purse and a more efficient way of ensuring the distribution of these booklets. Perhaps the poll card could be printed in such a size that the voter's name and address appears in the window of an envelope and the booklet is enclosed in that envelope. Such a facility would produce a net saving.

On the issue of references to other candidates, it seems to me that not just in London—where perhaps we might say that the incumbent mayoral candidate may be a person of some controversy—but in almost any election, a candidate may seek to try and make his case by drawing a contrast with incumbents or with other candidates. It unduly restricts a political process to deny a candidate the opportunity to refer to any other candidate.

The Minister said that of course candidates could refer to particular policies and issues. But some of these policies and issues are known to be those of particular candidates. It seems to be very difficult to say that a candidate could not, for example say, "I think the Mayor is wrong on his policy on a particular issue", or perhaps Simon Hughes, for example, might say, "I think the choice is between myself, Simon Hughes, and Ken Livingstone, the incumbent mayor". I cannot see why we should be so restrictive in this booklet when we are not in other candidate election addresses. It would be healthy for the debate if candidates were able to do that.

On a very technical issue, of course someone may be a candidate for the assembly and a candidate for the mayor. As I read the current regulations, a mayoral candidate producing the booklet could not refer to himself if he was also standing for the assembly, as a number of candidates did on the previous occasion. So I think that perhaps there is a case for looking again at this over-prescriptive rule about the election addresses.

Finally—and without wishing to pre-empt the role of the Minister—the noble Baroness asked questions about the imprint and the cost. As with the last time around, the £10,000 costs would have to appear in the individual's electoral expense returns. Imprint legislation has changed in the past four years. But, as in 1999, each candidate's agent would have to have a statement on his own individual item, accepting responsibility for that in order to protect the GLRO in case perhaps there was something defamatory contained within it. It may be perfectly acceptable for the GLRO to act as the publisher for the entire booklet, but he or she would be wise to insist that each candidate had his own publisher for each part of the publication. I am grateful to the Minister for his contribution and I look forward to his responses on a number of these issues.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, does not like the fact that the candidates will not be listed in alphabetic order, but will be taken by lot. It reminds me of when I was a publisher. We would sometimes leave out the index of a hook in the hope that people would read the entire book rather than looking themselves or their friends up in the index. I am afraid that it did not really work.

It may be of help if I read out what the Electoral Commission said on this matter. It said: Our concern about alphabetical ordering of the election addresses is that there may be some benefit that accrues to those candidates happening to appear earlier in the booklet by virtue of their surname. This could arise for example where an undecided elector is not motivated to read through all the election addresses and merely reads through the first few. Accordingly, we would recommend that the amendment of draft article 8.1 to provide for the order of the election addresses be determined by lot, drawn by the returning officer as soon as reasonably practicable after the close of nominations". I can see from the expression on the face of the noble Baroness that she is not convinced by the argument, but that is the reason why it is being done.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, is that going to be the same with the ballot paper?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My Lords, no, it is not.

I move to a number of issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. First, many of his points were of great interest, but they were directed, as he said, to the Greater London Returning Officer. We will make sure that he quickly has a copy of Hansard to read, because he may wish to consider these points.

The noble Lord made an important point about postal delivery. We absolutely agree with him about the importance of entirely reliable, brilliant delivery systems. I assure him that we would not go to anyone who could not guarantee a service as reliable and effective as the Post Office.

He also raised the question of Braille and large print. It will be for candidates to choose the content of their addresses and how that may be rendered in Braille and large print, if they wish. The GLRO does not determine content but facilitates its reproduction and distribution. The noble Lord did not ask what happens if the candidate wants to write in a language other than English, as he may in one or two boroughs. Again, that is entirely up to the candidate, who may have English and another language.

He made a point about references to other candidates. There is an argument on his side and one on the other side. Perhaps the candidate should determine himself or herself to the public by what he or she stands for, rather than by saying that he or she does not like what another candidate stands for. That is how it will be.

The noble Lord raised a number of interesting points that we shall draw to the attention of the GLRO. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at eighteen minutes before two o'clock.