§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 7.6 pm
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
During debate on the allocation of time motion, I spoke in considerable detail about the reasons not only for the guillotine, but for the introduction of the Bill. I shall not repeat those general remarks now, but it might be helpful for me briefly to speak about each of the clauses.
Clause 1 provides that the ordinary local elections that were due to take place for 34 English county councils and 11 English unitary authorities on 3 May will instead be deferred to 7 June. It also provides that any by-elections to fill casual vacancies in other local authorities will take place on 7 June, instead of during the period of deferral. As I explained to the House on Monday, it is not possible to defer by-elections that are due on Thursdays before, but not including, 3 May, as they are already too far down the track.
§ Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)
I realise that the Home Secretary will not tell us whether a general election will occur on 7 June. If an election were to occur on that date, however, would a by-election that had been deferred for a minor authority such as a town council take place if it was timetabled to occur at the same time? I ask that question because a town council by-election would not usually be permitted to occur on the same day as a general election.
§ Mr. Straw
The hon. Gentleman is right, as parish and town council elections are usually deferred if they are scheduled for the date of a general election. I think that they are delayed for a period of two or three weeks. I was going to explain the related provision later in my speech, but I shall say now that clause 7, which deals with consequential provision, allows orders to be made to enable town or parish council elections to occur notwithstanding the circumstances that he describes.
We have done the best trawl that we can, and it happens that very few parish or town council elections are occurring this year, as they do not usually occur in the same year as shire county elections. There are one or two areas in which new town councils are being established, and there are also some by-elections. I shall listen carefully to arguments and representations, but I will not speculate on whether a general election will occur on 7 June, although that is obviously a possible date. If a general election were scheduled to occur on that date, hon. Members on both sides of the House might decide that the deferral of parish or town council elections by two or three weeks is unacceptable. In many areas, such deferral would mean that the elections occurred in a holiday period. If hon. Members held that view, they might then request that we introduce an appropriate order. If representations are made, I will be happy to listen to them with great care. I hope that I have dealt satisfactorily with the hon. Gentleman's point.
Clause 1 also provides that a candidate who was validly nominated for the elections that would have taken place on 3 May will remain so without the need to submit fresh 397 nomination papers for the elections on 7 June. One of the amendments tabled by the official Opposition is, I think, based on an anxiety that the rolling register means that candidates could be validly nominated as at 3 May, but if one or other of the people who nominated them ceased to be on the register, it could appear that they had not been validly nominated for 7 June. May I say, to reassure the Opposition, that nominations for 7 June will be fully valid if they were so for 3 May, and anything that happens thereafter, such as someone ceasing to be on the register, will not be relevant to their validity. If they were valid yesterday, they will be valid on 7 June.
Yesterday was the closing date for nominations, and that will remain the case until the Bill is passed. Assuming that it is passed, people who had been validly nominated as of yesterday will be able to withdraw their nomination papers up to 15 May, and it will be open to any individual to submit new nomination papers until 10 May, which will be the closing date for nominations for any local elections held on 7 June, using the normal election timetable. The close of applications fur absent votes will be at 5 pm on Wednesday 30 May.
§ Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)
Will the Home Secretary confirm that it is still the intention to publish the nominations list at lunchtime tomorrow? Does he not think that, even at this late stage, that should be avoided if possible? Otherwise, people will be able to judge who has been nominated in the normal course of events and then seek to put up other candidates to wreck their prospects. We all know that the nominations list is secret until it is published, which is when the nomination process has closed. The Home Secretary should give some thought to that.
§ Mr. Straw
Frankly, there is no way round that. The law applies until it is changed. Even if the Bill proceeds according to the time scale that the Government have in mind, it cannot become law until next Tuesday at the earliest. Meanwhile, electoral registration officers are under a legal duty, which we expect them to perform, to observe the law. I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. In practice, the intelligence in any particular ward or electoral area is such that, roughly speaking, people know who will stand at a pretty early stage. I am already the subject of endless rumours about which of the usual six or seven non-traditional party candidates is likely to stand in my constituency, whenever a general election takes place. In most cases, people will have lined up in advance of the close of nominations for 3 May. Some may not have done, but we will have to accept that.
In recognition of the fact that the local election campaign will inevitably be longer and that some candidates may already have incurred wasted expenditure, such as having leaflets printed giving the election date as 3 May, we are raising the elections expenses limit for candidates for 7 June by 50 per cent. We do not think that many candidates will have expended much money. My knowledge of how candidates in every party operate at a local election level tells me that they tend not to have their leaflets printed until late in the day, but of course some do so earlier. It is possible in small electoral divisions for people manually to change dates on leaflets.
Notwithstanding that, it would be quite wrong if, as a result of the date change, a candidate who had already lawfully spent money on abortive campaigning faced 398 disqualification because his total expenditure was over the limit, which is why we are increasing it by 50 per cent. That figure was based not on any scientific survey but on my judgment of the maximum amount that anybody was likely to have spent at this stage in the campaign.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)
I accept the good will with which the Home Secretary is tackling this difficult situation, but he is talking about his intuition. Did he take any soundings from political parties or returning officers to ascertain whether the 50 per cent. increase was enough?
§ Mr. Straw
I took informal soundings, but I do not want to suggest that the figure was based on anything but my judgment. We all have a nose for these matters, if I may put it that way. I did many calculations and, as the hon. Gentleman may know, the spending limit for an electoral area in county council elections is a flat rate of £240 plus 4.7p per elector, so we are not talking about huge sums. I think that a 50 per cent. increase will be satisfactory.
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)
Does the Home Secretary accept that a better, more logical argument for that welcome increase is that many candidates in rural areas will now have to use the post, and they have no free postage, as I pointed out to the Leader of the House? People who jump the gun in advance of nomination day and print their leaflets in anticipation of an election are not to be encouraged. I offer him the better argument that candidates in some areas will find it necessary but expensive to use the post.
§ Mr. Straw
That is a good point. It is probably better than the one that I made—but if I am asked why I decided on a 50 per cent. increase, I cannot use the hon. Gentleman's argument because I did not think of it. I shall use the original argument on which the increase was based.
Clause 2 makes similar changes in respect of the district council elections that were scheduled to take place in Northern Ireland on 16 May. It makes no reference to by-elections for the simple reason that all 26 district councils in Northern Ireland were up for election on that date, and as no by-elections need to be held within six months of ordinary elections, there are no casual vacancies that would otherwise have been filled by by-elections.
The Northern Ireland provisions were discussed in the earlier debate by representatives of some Northern Ireland parties and the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth). It is self-evident that the bulk of the Bill is related to the Province. It takes the opportunity to bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom by providing that, if a general election and local elections fall on the same day, the polls should be combined.
Section 15 of the Representation of the People Act 1985 requires that, where two or more elections are to be held at the same time, they are to be taken together or combined. That has been the consistent practice for many years in Great Britain, but the Act was never extended to Northern Ireland. It means that if local elections and a 399 general election were to fall on the same day, the polls could not be combined, so voters effectively would have to vote twice. Polling could not be in the same room and voters would have to present themselves to polling stations twice to be issued with separate ballot papers. That does not stop elections being held on the same day, but it creates something of a pantomime in their administration.
§ Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down)
Has it occurred to the Home Secretary that local government elections and general elections have not taken place on the same day in Northern Ireland because of the two separate and distinct methods of voting—the first-past-the-post system and proportional representation? Is it correct that the Government, for political reasons other than the foot and mouth outbreak, had in the pipeline provisions for amalgamating the two elections on the same day for the purpose of aiding some parties in Northern Ireland?
§ Mr. Straw
The answer to the hon. and learned Gentleman's second question is that the matter was under consideration, but no final decision had been made. This problem intervened, and a final decision was made—[Interruption.] That is true. The hon. and learned Gentleman asked me, and I have told him exactly what the position is.
The answer to the hon. and learned Gentleman's first question is as he anticipated: there are two systems, single transferable vote and first past the post. That has been the traditional explanation—indeed, the only real explanation—of why there cannot be combined polls in Northern Ireland. However, during the elections for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, the electorate in Scotland and Wales were perfectly capable of understanding that there were two separate ballot papers and two separate systems. The Scottish and Welsh elections in 1999 were held on the same day for the Parliament and the Assembly and for unitary councils, and they went off without incident. The same applied in London, where there were separate ballots, albeit under the same umbrella. As a Londoner, I had two ballot papers: one for the mayor using one election system, and another for Assembly Members using a different system.
Experience in the United Kingdom and in other countries with far more complex electoral systems shows that voters' intelligence is, to put it bluntly, not to be insulted. They understand the system, and an examination of the variations in turnout shows no correlation between the complexity of the electoral system and turnout one way or the other.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)
In a strange intervention, could I ask the right hon. Gentleman not to take too long? We must finish Second Reading and the Committee stage by 9 o'clock. Some amendments deal with issues of substance, are wholly in order, and have been selected by the Chairman. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to give us time to get to those amendments.
§ Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)
I apologise for detaining the House, but this is probably our only chance 400 to ask the Home Secretary certain questions. In 30 seconds, can he explain why, in the Government's judgment, we need to shift the Northern Ireland elections? We went into that matter a little during the allocation of time debate, but can he say unequivocally for the record what the reason for that shift is?
§ Mr. Straw
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is a much greater expert on Northern Ireland than I am, as are others. I defer to him on Northern Ireland matters—and on many others, which we need not go into. [HON. MEMBERS: "More details."] Later. As my hon. Friend explained, the change is for the convenience of electors. I do not think that electors would take kindly to polls on separate dates, but the more important issue is that of foot and mouth. These are balanced judgments, but that is why we came to that view.
Clause 6 deals with compensation. In my statement on Monday, I explained that local authorities, which are responsible for meeting the full costs of local elections, inevitably will have incurred costs in the run-up to the elections that would have taken place in May. Local authorities will be obliged to go on incurring expenditure until the Bill receives Royal Assent, which is a good reason for its quick and smooth passage. Clause 6 gives me, as Secretary of Slate, the power to establish a scheme to compensate local authorities for the unavoidable additional expenditure incurred as a consequence of the deferral of the elections.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton
Does the clause also cover the cost incurred by local authorities in providing polling stations when churches, because of foot and mouth, have withdrawn facilities that have hitherto been available?
§ Mr. Straw
I shall have to give the hon. Gentleman a reply later through my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary when he winds up the debate. The idea is that the clause should cover any necessary and unavoidable expenses caused by this delay. We do not want local authorities to be in a different position as a result of the deferral of the elections from the one they would have been in if the elections were to be held on 3 May.
In the exchanges on Monday, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) asked whether we were making provision for candidates who have had abortive expenditure because of this change to be given compensation out of the public purse. I said that I would discuss the matter with her and with the Liberal Democrats. We have looked into the issue, and I have discussed it with the right hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) and with officials of my party.
The parties are agreed that, in the current circumstances, it would he inappropriate for candidates of registered political parties to be compensated from public funds. I think that that will have the House's approbation. I thought that it was important to look into the matter and consult, but given that some people are unquestionably in worse circumstances as a result of foot and mouth—and for reasons that the House will understand have not received compensation—I am glad that the parties have agreed to that view.
I do not intend to change the powers to provide a scheme. Clause 6(1)(a) allows for compensation to be paid to candidates. I want to keep that option open, 401 because although it is unlikely to be used, a farmer who has suffered grievously as a result of foot and mouth may stand as an independent candidate, and if he or she has lost money they cannot fall back on the funds of a registered party. In fairness, their claim should at least be considered. I give the House an undertaking that if I receive any such representations I will consult the other parties before making a final decision on a scheme. I hope that that is acceptable to the House.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)
The Bill has arisen because of the rapidly moving events of foot and mouth. The Home Secretary has told the House that postal votes will be valid up to 30 May. In the event that an exclusion zone is declared between 30 May and 7 June, assuming the election is on that day, would he be able to give returning officers the power to issue blanket postal votes for that exclusion zone under the consequential provisions in clause 7?
§ Mr. Straw
I shall have to get my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to provide a detailed answer when he winds up the debate. My guess is that the consequential provisions may allow that, because the order-making powers have been necessarily made wide. Under an earlier Bill—not the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill—we have already provided, by all-party agreement, for postal votes on demand. We are putting a lot of effort into advertising postal votes on demand, including in the farming press and in the local press in the areas most affected by foot and mouth. The time for applying for a postal vote has been considerably reduced to six working days. I hope that everyone in the affected areas will, in any event, apply for a postal vote. Practical problems were involved in the time scale, given that applications must be submitted and checked and ballot papers must be sent and returned—by post—in time for the close of polling on 3 May.
I hope that I have explained the Bill.
§ Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)
In order to allow the House to debate important amendments, I intend to be briefish. If I am not interrupted too much, I shall even be able to remove the "ish" and be brief.
As I made clear on Monday, we welcome the fact that the Government have, albeit belatedly, accepted the argument that we first presented more than two weeks ago, but if I had doubts before about the wisdom of the guillotine motion that we debated earlier, they have been reinforced by the Home Secretary's inability to reply to some of the points that were raised. It suggests to me that the Bill has not been thought through thoroughly enough. That may be understandable given the time scale that is available, but it should sound a terrible warning about the sort of legislation that we may produce when we gallop through it at such an unnecessary rate.
It is unfortunate that the Bill is being introduced only now, after the legal timetable for the elections has begun. That has undoubtedly caused confusion, and it is regrettable that the Government did not see fit to take up the offer made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition two weeks ago.
We do not believe that the Government have got it entirely right now. In specifying a fixed date of 7 June for local elections, they have left no room for manoeuvre. 402 They have not allowed for the possibility that the outbreak of foot and mouth disease may not be under control in at least some parts of the country by that time. We have heard the words "long haul" used in relation to the resolution of the crisis. The 7 June date seems very out of synch with the notion of a long haul.
Conservative Members do not believe that the House should work according to the arbitrary date of 7 June. We believe that further powers should be taken to allow further postponement of the elections in some areas if it is clear that the crisis is not under control.
If it took until last Friday for the Government to decide that it was not appropriate to hold elections on 3 May, it is impossible to see how they can be confident at this point that it will be possible to hold them on 7 June. Such a proposition is illogical, and smacks of panic. The Government have admitted that the scale and spread of the foot and mouth crisis has caught them by surprise. The official figures show that the epidemic continues to run out of control, and that the action to contain it has not always been adequate.
We cannot be certain today that the crisis will have been brought under control—still less that the disease will have been eradicated—by 7 June. That is why Conservative Members think that the Bill should not set 7 June in stone. In Committee, we shall table amendments providing for an alternative procedure.
I am not saying that it is necessarily impossible to hold elections on 7 June; I am saying that we cannot rely on the fact that it will be possible to do so. It is clear from the Bill itself that the date has been chosen not because the local elections need to be held within a month of their original date, or because it is foreseeable that the crisis will be under control by then, but simply because the Prime Minister wants to hold a general election at the earliest available opportunity, despite the fact that the Government's term of office still has more than a year to run. When I hear Ministers talking about "putting back the election", I have to remind them that there is no question of putting it back; they are desperate to bring it forward, by as much as a year.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has proposed four objective tests to determine whether the foot and mouth epidemic is sufficiently under control for elections to be justified. They are replicated in our amendment. They require the time between the reporting of a new case and the time of slaughter to have been reduced to 24 hours or less, geographical spread of the disease to have been reversed, movement restrictions to have been lifted from most farms and the trend in new cases to be clearly and sustainably downward. We shall return to that issue later—at least I hope we shall, the guillotine permitting.
On Monday, the Home Secretary told the House:We judge that, in terms of practical arrangements, polling in May would be possible and would produce fair results.He cited the wider availability of postal votes, saying thattelephone canvassing is now a key way in which voters in rural and urban areas are contacted by candidates".—[Official Report, 2 April 2001; Vol. 366, c. 21.]
Does the Home Secretary accept that there may be practical difficulties on 7 June, even with postal voting? Can he state categorically that all farmers in affected areas are able, and will be able, both to send and to receive post? Is it not the case that some cannot, because they are 403 confined to their farms? I raised the points about postal voting with the Home Secretary in a written question for answer yesterday, but as of today—the day on which we are being asked to consider the Bill—no such answer has been provided.
Does the right hon. Gentleman also accept that telephone canvassing may not reach rural electors, either because they have no telephones or because their numbers are not publicly available? What assessment has he made of the implications of increased telephone canvassing for candidates in affected areas who may be operating on tight budgets, notwithstanding the increase in the expenditure limit for which the Bill provides?
The date of 7 June may also pose practical problems for candidates who are themselves farmers, and who live in restricted areas. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition raised that point last month and I repeated it on Monday, but as yet we have received no response. How does the Home Secretary propose that such people should proceed if the outbreak is not under control by 7 June?
I should be grateful for a precise response from the Home Secretary, or from the Minister who winds up the debate, to another point that has been raised. Concern is rising in schools, because many are used for election purposes and 7 June falls in the middle of the GCSE period. That could cause considerable difficulties, and I should be glad to know what thought the Home Secretary has given to it. If he has given no thought to it—which would be entirely in character, given his response to other issues that have been raised—I hope that he will do so.
In response to the Home Secretary's statement on Monday 2 April, I raised the issue of compensation for candidates who may have, in good faith, spent large sums on election literature that is now inaccurate, or contains the wrong date, as a result of the Government's tardy change of mind. The Bill provides for a compensation scheme to compensate both individual candidates and registered political parties for their expenditure on such literature. I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's further consideration of the matter, and thank him for consulting both me and the Liberal Democrats.
Conservative Members believe that the scheme should be restricted to independent candidates, and that candidates from registered political parties should not benefit from it. We also believe that criteria for the scheme should identify a clear threshold for the claiming of compensation by independent candidates, and that it should apply only when there is a significant probability of such candidates' not being able to mount a campaign in the run-up to 7 June because they have already spent their resources on material that will have to be destroyed, and are unable to raise fresh funds.
Because of the Government's guillotine, other issues—besides that of the arbitrary date—may never be debated. There is, for example, the issue of proposers, seconders and assenters, and the issue of the rolling register. The Home Secretary mentioned that in his speech; but there are also issues of detail. I do not think I heard the right hon. Gentleman deal with another anxiety that we have expressed, relating to whether the deadline for meetings of police and other authorities to which councils nominate members is being extended. A further issue is the update 404 of the rolling electoral register, which is due next month and which is important to all political parties. Because of a lacuna in the relevant regulations, some registration officers are apparently unwilling to provide parties with updates.
I hope that the Home Secretary is laughing at an aside, rather than at the worries of electoral registration officers. If he concentrates, he may find out about things that he has not considered. That will make the parties' position at a June election even more difficult.
§ Miss Widdecombe
No, he is not.
We tabled a new clause to deal with the issue, but unfortunately it was not selected for debate in Committee, so I should be grateful to hear how it will be dealt with.
The Opposition support the principle of the Bill.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton
Does my right hon. Friend support the provision of free post for local government candidates on this occasion? Although there may be difficulties in getting post to and from farmers, it is important that every elector knows who is standing in the local authority concerned. Without an election address, how will it be done, as canvassing in many rural areas is out of the question?
§ Miss Widdecombe
There will be areas in the run-up to 7 June—there are such areas now—where it will not be practical to deliver mail. Therefore, serious consideration should be given to a free post for candidates, at least in those areas. Again, we have raised that matter but have not received a definitive answer.
§ Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)
Perhaps the right hon. Lady should ask the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether there is a free postal drop at council elections in Northern Ireland.
§ Miss Widdecombe
I could ask the Under-Secretary that question, but if he responds in the same way as the Home Secretary—
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. George Howarth)
As the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) knows full well, for reasons mainly to do with the security situation in the past in Northern Ireland, local government candidates have a free post.
§ Miss Widdecombe
Therefore, it can be done and is done in some parts of the United Kingdom. Why should it not be done in areas that have been unusually affected by a crisis so great that it has caused the postponement of the local elections? I would be grateful for an answer. If there are some insuperable difficulties that we have not seen, I would be grateful to know what they are. I would be glad if the Home Secretary tried to convince us about some of those things, instead of brushing them aside.
As I have said, we support the principle of the Bill. I look forward, more in hope than in faith, to constructive discussions about the issues that I have raised and about others that will come up during the Committee 405 proceedings. I have kept my speech to half the time that the Home Secretary took. I hope that the same spirit will be observed on the Labour Benches before we get to Committee.