§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the deferral of the local government elections, which were due to take place next month.
On 3 May, elections for 34 English county councils and 11 English unitary authorities were scheduled, and slightly less than a fortnight later, on Wednesday 16 May, elections for 26 district councils in Northern Ireland were also due. However, the House will be aware of the considerable scale of representations that we have received to defer those elections because of foot and mouth disease. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has now made clear, we have listened very carefully to those representations.
We judge that, in terms of practical arrangements, polling in May would be possible and would produce fair results. Following changes to the law brought into force on 16 February, postal votes in England and Wales are now available on demand to any voter. With a handful of exceptions, schools—in which many polling stations are sited—have remained open and operational in all foot and mouth disease areas. Moreover, as all of us are aware, the form of election campaigns has changed over the years: for example, telephone canvassing is now a key way in which voters in rural and urban areas are contacted by candidates and political parties.
We have also taken careful note of the impact on tourism and the message that any lengthy deferral might send out. On the other side of the equation, however, is the need for national and, in some areas, local politicians to be focused on the fight against foot and mouth disease as the necessary machinery to deal with any eventuality is put in place; and the feelings and sensitivities of people in the communities most severely affected by that dreadful disease.
Taking account of those considerations, we have decided that these local elections should be deferred for a short period: in the case of England and Wales, for five weeks, from 3 May to Thursday 7 June; and in the case of Northern Ireland, for three weeks, from 16 May to 7 June also. Some district and borough council by-elections are due on 3 May and others could be held on each Thursday thereafter before 7 June. In the circumstances, the Government believe it will be best if all by-elections in that period are also postponed until 7 June. In the time scale, however, it is not practical to defer by-elections that are due before 3 May.
A Bill to ask the House and the other place to give effect to those deferrals will be introduced as soon as possible. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will make a statement immediately after this one about the effect on the House's business As preparations for local elections on 3 May in England and Wales and 16 May in Northern Ireland will have to continue until and unless legislation for their deferral receives Royal Assent, it is plainly in everyone's interest that the legislation should be passed as quickly as possible. There are a number of detailed consequential matters which will have to be dealt with in the legislation. I will therefore make arrangements for the Opposition parties to have an outline of the draft legislation later today.
22 The House will be aware that the cost of administering local elections falls on the local authorities concerned. In respect of the elections that were due to take place in May, local authorities have already incurred expenditure and will be obliged to go on incurring such expenditure unless and until the new Bill receives Royal Assent. We shall accordingly take powers in the Bill to compensate local authorities for expenditure legitimately and unavoidably incurred. Although nominations for the elections due on 3 May do not close until tomorrow—and those for Northern Ireland do not close until later this month—some candidates may have incurred additional costs because of the deferral. They should be relatively small, but to cover them the maximum limit on candidates' expenses will be increased in the Bill by 50 per cent. The Bill will also provide that candidates validly nominated for elections due on 3 May will not have to resubmit their nomination papers.
Delaying elections is not a step ever to be taken lightly. Nevertheless, I hope that the House will agree with me that a relatively short postponement of the kind that I have set out is the appropriate response in the circumstances.
§ Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)
May I thank the Home Secretary for his usual courtesy in providing me with a copy of his statement in advance? Conservative Members are glad about the Government's belated recognition that there really is a crisis in this country, which is affecting the countryside and farmers badly, and that local elections would have been inappropriate in those circumstances. However, it is unfortunate that the Government decided not to consult the Opposition at all prior to making their decision on an important constitutional matter. Members will be aware of the tradition that, when important constitutional matters are involved, there should be contact with the Opposition. It is regrettable that that did not happen. But, of course, we know that even Cabinet Ministers were unaware of what the Prime Minister and his spin doctors were thinking.
Are not today's developments yet another chapter in the catalogue of dithering and delay that has characterised the Government's handling of the foot and mouth crisis? It was we who called for compensation for farmers who suffered irrecoverable losses, and it took the Government two weeks to announce it. It was we who called for the Government to make use of the Army, and it took them another nine days even to begin deploying troops. It was we who called for rate relief for rural businesses, and it took the Government a week to decide to undertake that. It was we who called for legislation to allow postponement of the local elections two weeks before the legal timetable for those elections had commenced, At the time the Leader of the House said that such a move would be "catastrophically wrong". The Prime Minister's official spokesman said:We are not going down that road".But now, at this late stage, the Home Secretary comes to the House and says that the elections will need to be postponed until 7 June.
If the foot and mouth outbreak is the reason for putting the elections off, how can the Government work to such an arbitrary date? What will the Government do if the crisis continues, and is not resolved at that time? What criteria will the Prime Minister use to determine whether to go ahead then—or is that date written in tablets of stone? We need answers to those important questions.
23 The Prime Minister said this morning that it was necessary to put in place immediate short and long-term strategies to ensure eradication of the disease. The Prime Minister has shown no leadership. He said that while the crisis was still going on, it would not be appropriate to hold the elections. Is it not entirely consistent with the principle of delaying those elections that while the crisis remains unresolved, until and possibly beyond 7 June, the argument stands for focusing on combating the disease rather than on the elections?
Will the Home Secretary therefore say clearly today whether it is planned that those elections will go ahead regardless of the progress and the circumstances of the current crisis—despite the fact that the Prime Minister said this morning that it would be better to focus on the fight against foot and mouth, and that one of his key criteria for deciding in favour of postponement was the feeling in local communities?
Will the right hon. Gentleman also accept that the Prime Minister was wrong to say that there were no practical impediments in the way of having the local elections on 3 May? Does he realise that areas such as Devon and Cumbria, which are particularly badly affected—[Interruption.]
§ Miss Widdecombe
No wonder Labour Members do not want to hear these important questions. [Interruption.] No wonder they do not want to be challenged on the profoundly inadequate handling of a national crisis.
Will the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, who have both claimed that there are no practical impediments, recognise that in Devon and Cumbria, which are particularly badly affected, there are many candidates who are farmers? How are they supposed to press their candidature if they cannot move about?
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is a clear case for flexibility in the proposed legislation, and that to fix a date of 7 June in the Bill would be both inappropriate and premature? Does he accept that the legislation should be framed around taking the necessary powers to set a new date, because it is clear that it would not be responsible to fix the date now? Might it not, indeed, be right for local elections in some areas that have been particularly affected to be delayed longer than the one month that the legislation would allow—[Interruption.]
I am afraid that the attitude on the Government Benches shows how seriously Labour Members do not take what is going on in the countryside, and how little respect they have for the people who are asking these questions—the people who are affected.
As the Home Secretary will appreciate, his announcement raises several extremely important legal and practical issues. What about the closing of nominations for the local elections, which is due to take place at midday tomorrow? I understand that before the right hon. Gentleman's statement, the Home Office had been telling local authorities that the deadline would be extended into May. Do the Government intend that the deadline should be 24 so extended, and if so, for how long? How will they bring that about, given that there will be no legislation in place by tomorrow, when the deadline expires?
Will the right hon. Gentleman say something about literature printed in good faith by candidates who believed the Government's previous firm assurances that the elections would take place on 3 May? Will those candidates be compensated for their expenditure on that literature—[Interruption.]
§ Miss Widdecombe
The more questions we ask, the more desperate Labour Members become. All over this country, people representing all the major parties will be disgusted by the fact that these questions are being treated as trivial.
I welcome the decision to increase candidates' expenditure limits, but will the right hon. Gentleman consider whether a 50 per cent. increase is enough where candidates may have had to destroy all their election literature? I also welcome the decision to reimburse local councils that have incurred, or will incur, unavoidable expenditure because of the postponement.
Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether there will be further special arrangements for postal voting, and especially for the delivery of election addresses, in areas that are particularly badly affected by the foot and mouth crisis? Will he comment on the legal issues resulting from the legal requirement for councils to hold annual meetings in April and May, and for the election of mayors and the commencement of new budgets in that time?
Will the right hon. Gentleman admit that these are important issues which could and should have been resolved much earlier, and that the legislation should have been produced before 26 March, as we said? Will he also comment on the rolling register, and on the extension of the deadline previously set at 12 March?
Finally—[HON. MEMBERS: "Too long."] Too long because too much has been unattended to. If the Home Secretary had covered these matters in his statement, I would not have to ask him obvious questions now. Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on the disgraceful way in which the decision was announced? Will he confirm that Labour party spin doctors were authorised to leak the announcement to the press on Friday evening? Perhaps he could tell us whether the Prime Minister's official spokesman was involved in that.
Will the right hon. Gentleman also confirm that the Cabinet was kept in the dark about the Prime Minister's change of mind—so much so that the Culture Secretary embarrassed himself and the Government by making contradictory statements about the matter within a couple of hours on Saturday morning? Does the Home Secretary regret that? Did he become aware of the decision before or after the press were told? The Government have dithered and delayed on the issue for the past two weeks. Their actions to date will have inspired no confidence among the public in their ability to handle the crisis.
§ Mr. Straw
I will, as ever, seek to answer as many of the right hon. Lady's questions as possible and as the time allows. However, you will forgive me, Mr. Speaker, if I observe that the right hon. Lady has only one gear— 25 a very high gear. She invited us all to accept that we were speaking of a national crisis, then treated us to a party political rant, with posturing and invective.
The gravamen of the right hon. Lady's remarks was whether it would not be better to defer the elections indefinitely. We all understand that there are some on the Conservative Benches who would like to see the local elections and any general election deferred through this year and well past May 2002. However, there are significant practical reasons why it would not be sensible to delay the unitary and county council elections beyond the date in June or thereabouts. [interruption.] I will explain why, if right hon. and hon. Members will hear me out. It is extremely important.
If we were to defer the elections indefinitely, we would have to do one of two things. We would also have to defer by-elections indefinitely as well. At each four-year cycle of any council, about a quarter of all candidates retire or resign. Most of those, we anticipate, will be willing to serve for a further three, four or, as it happens, five weeks. As they have made their own decision to retire or, in many cases, among all three parties, have been deselected, I do not believe that almost any of them could or would be willing to be nominated for those vacancies. The effect of deferring the elections indefinitely and prohibiting by-elections meanwhile—
§ Mr. Straw
It is absolutely true. Hon. Members may shake their heads, but the effect would be to leave those areas unrepresented, and also to secure a situation in which, by chance or by death, control of those councils changed. The alternative is not to defer by-elections, but that would mean ending up with a situation such as that in which the Conservatives are already complicit in the city of Carlisle. The agent of the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) is now standing as a candidate there in a by-election that was called by the Conservatives. [HON. MEMBERS: "It is a city."] But it is also part of the designated area for foot and mouth disease. I remind hon. Members that the whole of Cumbria is covered by foot and mouth prohibitions.
Without our decision, an increasing number of by-elections would be triggered not only in metropolitan and urban areas, but across rural areas, in place of sensible, all-out elections on 7 June. It is for that reason that the decision is supported by sensible Conservatives such as the Conservative leader of Hampshire county council. When he was asked whether he agreed with the decision that was announced this morning, it was clear that, unlike the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), he saw the sense in it. He said that he was "rather glad" about the announcement. So, we have good, thinking Conservatives on our side, even though the right hon. Lady would not claim to be a member of that tendency.
I shall now deal with the legal and practical difficulties that the right hon. Lady raised. On the close of nominations, unless and until the legislation is introduced, the arrangements for the elections on 3 May and 16 May will continue. The legislation will provide, however, that nominations for the elections in England, Wales and Northern Ireland that have been made by the due date will stay valid—unless, of course, candidates decide to withdraw them of their own volition.
26 On compensation, I am happy to talk to the Opposition parties about whether compensation to a degree can be provided to candidates or their parties. Obviously, there will have to be a separate scheme for independents. We think that 50 per cent. is enough, but we are happy to consider any evidence—[HON. MEMBERS: "50 per cent. compensation?"] Not 50 per cent. compensation, but a 50 per cent. increase in the limit on expenses. Notwithstanding our judgment that most candidates will, in practice, have spent little money, it would plainly be wrong for a candidate who had spent money in anticipation of elections on 3 May then to be outwith the limit through no fault of his or her own.
We have considered the delivery of a free post, which I think the right hon. Lady had in mind, but we do not think that it is practical in the circumstances. On the legal requirements for annual meetings, I am again happy to speak to the Opposition parties, but the proposed law will provide for the annual cycle of meetings, which would usually occur in May in respect of the affected councils, to take place in June, after the new local elections on 7 June.
I conclude by returning to the right hon. Lady's point about dithering. I can think of no greater dithering—something with which the Opposition's approach has been replete—than not deciding on a clear date that is plainly in the interests of the country as a whole. As many Opposition Members claim to represent rural areas, they should listen not only to the voices of people in the farming community, but to those of people in the tourist industry, some of whose representatives have now welcomed the decision and the certainty that it brings, but have said that on no account, in the interests of the rural economy as a whole, should the date be deferred beyond 7 June.
§ Mr. Bruce Grocott (Telford)
Although I fully understand the Opposition's strategy of wanting elections delayed until their political fortunes improve, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he has any estimate of how long the elections would have to be delayed in order for that objective to be achieved?
§ Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)
I thought that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) was trying to use up all the time between now and 7 June in asking her questions. I shall be much briefer.
The Liberal Democrats support the Bill and the change of election date, except in Northern Ireland, to which I shall revert shortly. Although we do not have a reputation for being soft on Labour or soft on the policies of Labour, we believe that it was right for the Prime Minister to wait until the weekend to make a decision. It may not be in the interests of parties or politicians to defer the election, but the decision clearly reflected a strong national mood and is in the interests of the country.
Subject to examining the fine print, we will expedite the Bill's progress so that certainty can be provided as soon as possible. The Bill has the advantage of setting a 27 definite date so that we can concentrate on foot and mouth for the next few weeks. It also enables the tourist industry to know that it will be business as usual soon, and to encourage people to go to the many places in Britain that we want them to visit.
I have two technical questions. First, will local authorities receive full compensation for all the expenses that they have incurred? Secondly, will the Home Secretary re-examine the decision to postpone the Northern Irish elections? Northern Ireland is a foot and mouth-free Province. The tradition is to hold local elections there on the third Wednesday of May. Is the Home Secretary willing to consider proceeding with them?
When will we have a guarantee that, in future, Ministers will make announcements to Parliament, not national newspapers, and when will we end the pretence that we are not considering the day of the general election as well as that of local elections?
§ Mr. Straw
In so far as I can judge, the Conservative approach of switch and switch again to every issue—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Oh yes. The number of statements by Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen, calling for the election to be held the next day if not the day before, is astonishing. I shall not bore the House by reading them out, but they are all on the record. Their policy of switch and switch again is determined by the Leader of the Opposition's approach to politics, which is to put his finger in the air every morning to ascertain which way the wind is blowing and hope that people will not notice.
I accept the comments of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) about balancing the need to take account of the sensibilities and sensitivities in rural areas and farming communities and to ensure a period when all are engaged in fighting foot and mouth against not stringing the matter out indefinitely. That would send out the wrong message, especially about tourism. All of us who know and love the countryside realise that tourism and agriculture are inextricably linked, but that for every 1 per cent. of gross domestic product that comes from agriculture, 7 per cent. of GDP, our wealth and our jobs, is generated by tourism.
We will provide full compensation for expenses that were unavoidably incurred by local authorities.
The hon. Gentleman asked me to look again at another matter, and I will be happy to discuss that with him. On the issue of general elections, he knows that the timing of any general election is a matter on which the Prime Minister, and the Prime Minister alone, advises Her Majesty.
§ Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that those who have watched with great distress the television coverage of the immolation of 28 the carcases of the animals that have so far been killed, and those who are affected in those areas—the people who are desperately anxious about what is happening to their tourist businesses, tourist accommodation and so on—will be filled with contempt for the way in which the desperate rabble on the Conservative Benches has attempted to derive party political advantage from the distress of those people? My right hon. Friend talked about the effect of foot and mouth on tourism, but Conservative Members are most worried about the effect on Toryism. Are not Conservative Members trying to enunciate the novel doctrine that the prerogative of deciding the date of an election should lie not only with the Leader of the Opposition, but with the most unpopular Leader of the Opposition since polling began?
§ Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)
I believe that the vast majority of people of all political opinions—and of none—in Cumbria will welcome the announcement that the elections will not take place in May. However, they will wonder whether the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister are right to suggest that, in no circumstances, however bad the foot and mouth crisis becomes, would they contemplate moving the elections from June.
May I also check an important technical point with the Home Secretary? In his statement, he talked about the fact that many village schools would still be open and would therefore be able to serve as polling stations. He may know that returning officers across Cumbria have been told that village halls—which provide the bulk of polling stations in rural areas because the schools have long since closed—will not be open for an election in May, and will probably not be available to act as polling stations in June either. Will the Home Secretary please address that question, and the case that returning officers are making for universal automatic postal voting in Cumbria as the only way of ensuring a substantial voter turnout, whenever the elections take place?
§ Mr. Straw
I must say to the hon. Gentleman that this is a matter of balance. As the Prime Minister made clear earlier today, we believe that we have got the balance right. Of course we have thought about and worked through other altenatives. However, despite the calls from some Opposition Members when I was trying to explain the issue of by-elections, it could not be right to leave whole areas—including whole areas of Cumbria—unrepresented by not holding local county council elections in the near future.
To defer those elections indefinitely could mean either that large tracts of Cumbria, for example, would have no county councillors at all—on average, a quarter of all county wards in England, all of them single-member wards, would have no representation at all—or that the object of postponement would be defeated, because there would be a continuing cycle of by-elections as the inevitable casual by vacancies caused by resignation or retirement took place. That is why we judged that certainty, in the form of a deferral of five weeks, was sensible.
29 I shall be happy to discuss the hon. Gentleman's point about village halls with him, and also to ensure that discussions on the matter take place with the returning officers and, of course, with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture. We have considered universal automatic postal votes, but we judged that they were not necessary. They might well have been necessary—as might emergency legislation to that effect—had we not already had provisions in force from in 16 February for everyone to obtain a postal vote on demand.
The hon. Gentleman may not be aware—because it has not yet been formally announced—that we have also put in place an increase in the advertising campaign run by the electoral registration officers, the better to provide information about how to apply for a form. The forms will be very easily available, including on the internet.
§ Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)
I thank my right hon. Friend for listening to those of us who have argued that politicians should be fighting foot and mouth, not each other, in May. Did not the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) exceed even herself in her misjudgment of the mood of the House and the country? Is he aware that the chief of tourism in the south-west of England, Malcolm Bell, said today that he warmly welcomes the postponement of the local elections to June, although he added that the open-ended postponement advocated by the Conservative party would be absolutely disastrous for the British tourism industry?
§ Mr. Straw
I am glad that my hon. Friend welcomes the statement: because he represents an area that is one of those worst affected by foot and mouth disease and one of the most important for tourism in the country, he is also one of those to whom my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the Cabinet and I have listened carefully. I am aware of Mr. Bell's comments welcoming the decision to defer until 7 June, but no further. I have also had drawn to my attention, for example, comments by Carole Hutchings of the South Devon tourist association, who describes herself as a farmer on Dartmoor as well as someone who runs tourist attractions. She says that she too, is glad of the deferment—but again, not beyond that date.
§ Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)
Does the Home Secretary recognise that in Northern Ireland farming represents a much larger percentage of gross domestic product than in the rest of the United Kingdom? Hence there has been huge anxiety about whether an election would be held, as had been forecast, on 3 May. I welcome the Government's decision, although given the veterinary advice that was available I am puzzled as to why it was not made sooner.
Like most Members and the Government, I hope that, by 7 June, the crisis will have begun to ease. There is a crisis today and we do not want it to become a catastrophe. Can the Home Secretary reassure me that compensation due to Northern Ireland local authorities will not come out of the very hard-pressed block grant, but will be new money to replace that already expended?
§ Mr. Straw
The decision was very difficult; it is not a laughing matter. It is unusual in peacetime for elections to be deferred, even for a short while. The most careful consideration was thus required. [Interruption.] Again, I hear sedentary comments from Conservatives; they have never deferred elections. Of course, they have abolished them altogether, however, as some of us remember. We are not going down that path.
Of course, I recognise the huge importance of farming to the economy and society of Northern Ireland; it is even greater than in many rural areas of the rest of the United Kingdom, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland loses no opportunity to remind the rest of the Cabinet of that fact. On compensation, I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman to give a detailed answer.
§ Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)
I welcome the sensible decision to postpone the local government elections, but will my right hon. Friend consider again—in these exceptional circumstances—allowing candidates one free mail shot to each elector, as foot and mouth may still be causing trouble?
May I also make a personal request? Speaking as one of those who will not be standing at the general election, may I ask my right hon. Friend in no circumstances to postpone these elections any further—certainly not for the 10 years, at least, that will pass before the Conservatives again become remotely electable?
§ Mr. Straw
I remind my hon. Friend that my announcement concerned only the postponement of local elections, rather than any other kind.
I shall be happy to talk to my hon. Friend about free mail shots, but when we have considered the matter in the recent past we have not been convinced that the cost and complexity involved would not outweigh the perceived advantages. There is no legislative cover, which would make the procedure particularly complicated and detailed.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his statement, but will he give an assurance that if foot and mouth is not under control on 7 June—which, sadly, is possible—he will draft the Bill in a way that would allow elections in at least some parts of the country to be delayed beyond that date?
§ Mr. Straw
I regret to say that that is not possible. Our experience of the 1967 outbreak suggests that foot and mouth is likely to be with us for some time, although I shall not enter the realms of predicting the path of the disease. We have considered carefully whether it would be possible to tell one group of electors, but not another, that their elections would be deferred; but given the questions of where to draw the line and the criteria on which to draw it, and of fairness to one group of electors in relation to another, we have judged the idea to be wholly impractical.
§ Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)
The Home Secretary has referred to the serious consequences of foot and mouth for the tourist trade, but is it not also having a severe impact on our meat exporting trade? Middlesbrough contains a meat-processing factory with 40 workers, exporting to Belgium and Holland. It has been seriously affected by the crisis.
31 The Home Secretary has told the House twice that a quarter of our councillors are chosen at local elections each year, and that there is a series of by-elections. Will he confirm that the budget cycle will begin in September? There is constant interaction between Government and local councils, and local council elections are as important to our democracy as national elections. Would not deferring local elections indefinitely deal a destabilising and detrimental blow to our local democracy?
§ Mr. Straw
Of course I understand the concern that my hon. Friend has expressed so eloquently on behalf of those in his area who work in the meat export trade.
The House may be interested to hear some figures. In 1999, of 11,380 councillors who were due for election, 2,695–24 per cent.—stood down. The proportion was similar last year, although fewer electoral wards and fewer councillors were involved.
My hon. Friend is right: to postpone the elections indefinitely and not to hold by-elections would cause local democracy to grind to a halt. It would plainly be unacceptable for the control of councils to pass randomly from one party to another, with no reference to the electors, as a result of acts of God or chance retirements.
§ Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)
Delaying the local elections only until 7 June is gesture politics at its most obvious. Will the Home Secretary confirm that foot and mouth will still be with us on 7 June? Indeed, it might even be worse. If the Prime Minister had wanted to do what was right for the country, rather than convenient for him, he would have initiated a real delay in the elections. Will the Home Secretary confirm that there is a precedent for delaying local elections by a year? Incidentally, what does he intend to do about the census on 29 April, for which people will have to visit all homes personally in order to gather information?
§ Mr. Straw
The hon. Gentleman may not accept this—I doubt that he will—but I know for certain that the Prime Minister has taken this decision in the national interest: there is nobody more concerned about foot and mouth or anxious to ensure that it is brought properly under control, however long that takes.
There is a precedent for a delay of a week in the local elections. It occurred in 1986, when it transpired that the first Thursday in May would have coincided with the Jewish festival of Passover. Local elections were also deferred in wartime. There are no other precedents, except that elections have sometimes been abolished, as they were by the Conservatives when they got rid of the GLC.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the census. Len Cook, as the national statistician—the Office for National Statistics is responsible for conducting the census—has already issued a public statement, last week I think, drawing attention to the detailed arrangements that he is making for the canvassing, as it is called, of returns under the census, and he has made it clear that in farming areas that will be done by post.
§ Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries)
I warmly welcome today's announcement and the decision that has been taken—after long deliberation, some would say, 32 but certainly after careful thought by the Prime Minister. We are talking about local elections in England and Wales, and the Conservatives have said clearly over the past two weeks that all elections should be delayed, but that has not stopped the Tories in my area issuing election literature. In addition—to show how well organised the Conservatives are—they were leafleting in the wrong constituency. More importantly, my right hon. Friend should be aware that those same people have been campaigning in badly infected areas. I hope that he will investigate that. The only election that the Conservatives are really concerned about is the election of a new leader following their defeat in the general election.
§ Mr. Straw
My hon. Friend makes a sage observation. The problem is that we have seen no credible candidates for the leadership of the Tory party on display today. It is true that we have received reports of local Conservatives associations taking an unexpectedly active part in local politics in foot and mouth disease areas. My hon. Friend mentioned one such incident, and I have already mentioned the activities of the Conservatives in the city of Carlisle, where the agent to the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) is a candidate.
§ Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)
Toby Sturgis and Jane Scott, who are livestock farmers in my constituency and candidates in the forthcoming local government elections, will understand and be grateful for the Home Secretary's announcement that the elections are to be deferred. They are in a restricted area and cannot currently campaign. If, God forbid, ours remains a restricted area on 7 June, how am I to explain to them that last month the election was deferred because they could not campaign, whereas this month, with conditions no better, it is suddenly all right? I cannot fob them off with an obscure point about a by-election in Carlisle—they simply will not wear it.
§ Mr. Straw
I have already made it clear that our judgment is that there were no practical impediments in the way of elections going ahead all over the country on 3 May, so the assumption behind the hon. Gentleman's question does not arise. As we all know, electoral and campaigning methods have changed over the years. There is much greater use of telephone canvassing in rural as well as urban areas, postal voting is available on demand and the public highways are open in all areas.
§ Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, on foot and mouth and the election date, all we have seen from the Conservatives are crocodile tears for the farmers and those employed in the tourist trade? If the Conservatives really believe that delaying the local elections is in the national interest, why, on Wednesday of last week, did the Conservative party launch its local election manifesto in Berkshire? Does my right hon. Friend agree that, on this issue, the Conservatives stand condemned as nothing more than a bunch of opportunistic hypocrites?
§ Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)
As a Member who represents a constituency in which foot and mouth 33 restrictions apply, may I ask the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister to accept my thanks for this delay? It was clearly a difficult decision to make. Will the Home Secretary clarify one point with regard to the postponement of local by-elections? There are no county elections in Wales, but I believe that some by-elections are scheduled for 3 May. The rationale that the right hon. Gentleman gave for not going ahead with by-elections in England does not, therefore, apply in Wales. Will he also tell the House that it is open for tourists to come to the country areas and enjoy what they can, bearing in mind the restrictions?
§ Mr. Straw
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks, which I will pass on to the Prime Minister. On the postponement of local by-elections, I should have made it clear—and I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman and other Members representing Welsh constituencies for not doing so—that the arrangements will apply to districts in Wales as well as to counties and districts in England. There will be the same arrangements for the postponement of by-elections which would otherwise be due or have been called in respect of dates from and including 3 May. As I previously explained, for practical reasons, we cannot defer by-elections that are due on the Thursdays between now and the Thursday immediately before 3 May—that is just one of those things.
Wales is a beautiful country; a huge number of tourist opportunities are still open. I know, as someone who loves walking in the countryside, that although it is not quite as enjoyable to walk along open public highways, the walks are still very enjoyable, and the views in Wales are unsurpassed.
§ Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)
Is it not a fact that to go for an indefinite delay would have been totally irresponsible and caused many problems to many local authorities in planning their annual council meetings and making the structural changes needed to comply with last year's local government legislation? Is it not also clear from the tirade from the Conservative Front Bench that, having demanded a change in the date of the elections, the Tories have not thought through the complexities of delay?
§ Mr. Straw
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. It is absolutely clear from the rant of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) that she and her colleagues on the Front Bench have simply failed to understand the consequences of indefinite referral. If anything were to lead to uncertainty in the countryside, an indefinite referral would.
§ Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)
Given the Government's wish to help the tourist industry, does the Home Secretary think that the Prime Minister helped when he chose, for a recent photo opportunity, a visit to the countryside covered from head to foot in protective clothing, accompanied by soldiers similarly attired for a crisis? How can we believe that the Government are serious about the tourist industry when that is the image they send out to the world?
§ Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)
I congratulate my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister on this timely and wise decision. Does it not show a proper balancing of fundamental respect for democracy with accurately listening to the views of people such as my constituents in Lancaster and Wyre? Is it not the essence of good government? Does it not contrast markedly with the squalid self-interest displayed by Opposition Front Benchers? Is not one bright lining to this cloud the fact that, rather than campaigning on Friday for a resounding Labour victory in the county council elections, Labour Members will be able to turn their attention to supporting the Children's Rights Commissioner Bill, which will be debated on that day?
§ Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)
If it is sensible to delay the elections from the beginning of May to the beginning of June, but not possible or sensible to delay them any longer than that, presumably there is an advantage in that first delay. Given that the Home Secretary has already told the House that, in the Government's view, there is nothing to stop traditional and more modern methods of canvassing, presumably that advantage relates to the control of foot and mouth. Can he therefore tell us what assessment the Government have made of the likely status on 7 June of the foot and mouth outbreak—an assessment which has enabled them to believe that an election can be held on that date?
§ Mr. Straw
I take it from the hon. Gentleman's comments that he is against a deferral until 7 June. I set out very clearly the considerations that we have taken into account. As I made clear, we do not believe that polling would not be possible on 3 May; we think that it would be practically possible. However, we have also taken into account the sensibilities of people in the rural areas, as well as—as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said earlier today—the immediate and short-term need for a focus by national and some local politicians on the issue of foot and mouth.
§ Mr. Phil Hope (Corby)
My right hon. Friend has already mentioned compensation for local authorities because of the deferral of the county council elections. However, there will be a considerable impact on returning officers and their staff who have to perform the urgent logistical task of transferring bookings and making other arrangements for the new elections date. Does my right hon. Friend recognise the extra work that will have to be done by returning officers and their council staff? Will he ensure that there is effective communication between the Home Department and returning officers so that, if there is confusion at any point, it can be cleared up as speedily as possible?
§ Mr. Straw
Of course I accept that there will be extra work. We are well aware of that, and we are extremely grateful to the staff of electoral registration officers and to the officers themselves for the extremely high standards 35 of administration and integrity that they bring to all elections. As I have made clear, we shall provide for compensation to local authorities for the unavoidable extra costs that they incur; and of course the Home Office wants to ensure that we have in place the most effective communications possible.
§ Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)
Will the Home Secretary, please, now respond to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) on the closing date for nomination of candidates in county council elections who have not yet submitted a claim? Today's announcement on delaying the county council elections will be most welcome in the Vale of York. However, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that it is estimated that the disease will peak, and that cases will quadruple, in the run-up to June? If that estimate turns out to be accurate, will he review the date?
§ Mr. Straw
I am sorry that I did not earlier address the nomination issue. Subject to the Bill's being acceptable to the House and to the other place, and to its receiving Royal Assent, the law will provide for the normal electoral cycle to operate. In normal local elections, the cycle of nominations being invited and closed and the other key events prior to polling day occur over 25 working days. That cycle will simply be replicated for a 7 June polling day. As I have already made clear, anybody who is validly nominated when nominations close tomorrow for the elections that were due on 3 May will be able to maintain their nomination and do no other work. Those nominations will carry forward into the new elections if the Bill receives Royal Assent.
36 On the disease and its peaking, obviously, when making our judgments, we have taken account of various possibilities in respect of foot and mouth. However, I am afraid that I can hold out no prospect to the hon. Lady of further review of the progress of the disease and then of the date. We judge that it is sensible, for all the reasons that I spelled out, to defer the elections for five weeks until 7 June, but not to defer them further.
§ Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)
Will the Home Secretary confirm that the chief executives of councils in Northern Ireland recently held discussions at the Northern Ireland Office on holding the council elections and the general election on the same day? Will he also confirm that there was universal opposition to that, on the grounds that in Northern Ireland we have two different electoral systems, that the council and parliamentary boundaries do not coincide, and that there will thus be extreme difficulty in getting people's votes counted, even with the proposed delay for council elections until the following week? In those circumstances, why did the Northern Ireland authorities go ahead and order 1,000 new ballot boxes so that the two elections could be held on the same day? It will cause absolute mayhem for the electorate.
§ Mr. Straw
The hon. Gentleman will understand that although I brief myself as much as possible for these events, I am not aware of the ordering of ballot boxes by chief executives and district councils in Northern Ireland.
On the other point the hon. Gentleman makes, I understand from the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), that the chief executives said that it was practical to hold the local elections and a general election on the same day—whether it is desirable to do so is obviously a matter for debate.