§ 3.22 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton)
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)
On Question, Motion agreed to.
House in Committee accordingly.
[THE DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Lord Ampthill) in the Chair.]
§ Clause 1 [Postponement of local government elections in England and Wales]:
Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 1:
Page 1, line 3. at beginning insert "Subject to subsection (2A),
§ The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 1, I wish to speak also to Amendments Nos. 5 and 7. As we all know, the date of the county council elections has been—or will be, if the Bill is accepted—moved from 3rd May to 7th June. Why was 7th June accepted as an appropriate date? Presumably it was hoped that foot and mouth disease, which is the unhappy reason for the introduction of the Bill, would be under control by that stage. In the middle of last week some epidemiologists sent some optimistic messages with regard to how soon foot and mouth would be brought under control. However, it is fair to say that since the end of last week and over the weekend there have been other extremely serious outbreaks in areas far from previous outbreaks. Therefore, it is abundantly clear that this grievous disease is not under control and cannot be said to be SO.
§ As I understand it, the purpose of the postponement is to enable people in affected areas of the countryside to take part in the democratic process through postal voting; to enable them to be canvassed where possible and to enable those who hope to stand as candidates to do so, particularly farmer candidates whose farms have been affected by foot and mouth disease.996
§ It becomes increasingly unlikely that the disease will be on the wane by 7th June. It therefore seems sensible—the amendments are designed to achieve this—to give the Government the opportunity to introduce an order to stagger the local elections if it is clear to any local authority that it is impossible for a fair and democratic process to take place in its locality. Amendment No. 7 gives details of how that process can be initiated and explains that such an order would be submitted to both Houses of Parliament for their approval. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Hamwee
On Second Reading last week we on these Benches made clear our view of the seriousness of any postponement of the local elections. My noble friend Lord Greaves expressed our collective view well when he said that we gave two cheers rather than three to the Bill.
The arguments were finely balanced, but certainly did not persuade us that the postponement should be for a period as long as one year. I acknowledge that the unwritten intention of the amendment may be to call the Government's bluff with regard to the range of elections that may take place on 7th June. As we said last week, we do not expect the Government Benches to acknowledge that this is a fig leaf for not having the general election on 3rd May. Perhaps I can tease the Conservatives a little by suggesting that the amendment is a fig leaf for them wanting to keep their heads in the sand and not face a general election for as long as they possibly can.
Seriously, we need certainty in this situation. Last week we argued for fixed-term Parliaments on that basis. There was certainty for those elected to the counties in May 1997. On Thursday I and my noble friends described a number of the difficulties that would arise from an indefinite postponement, which I described as a dribbling away of democracy. Among those would be a series of resignations by individual councillors which might in some cases lead to changes of control almost by default and not by design of the electorate, which is where on the whole such decisions should emanate. We also mentioned the knock-on effects of postponing annual meetings which would arise if the amendment were accepted. We shall discuss that issue later. I refer to decisions on service delivery which are taken at the beginning of a new council.
I also believe that there are inherent difficulties in the detail of the amendments which I shall mention now as we are expected to deal with all stages of the Bill today. Amendment No. 7 refers to the disease being brought "under control". Do we have appropriate or sufficient tests to determine that? The amendment further states,restrictions have been lifted from most farms—does that mean 51 per cent of farms?—and refers to the trend being "downward" and the spread of the disease being "reversed". I am not sure that I understand the distinction between those two conditions. The amendment also refers to the time between reporting the disease and slaughter of the affected animals. That may be intended to 997 demonstrate control in dealing with the disease, but does it reflect the control of the disease itself as distinct from having better mechanisms to respond to it?
Finally, whose judgment would apply? The Secretary of State would have to be satisfied, but then the matter would come to both Houses of Parliament. Under the amendment, an application for judicial review would be fairly likely and the courts would have to determine whether the tests were met.
There is so much scope for uncertainty in the amendment that we cannot support it. We certainly could not support an indefinite postponement of the council elections.
§ 3.30 p.m.
§ Baroness Gould of Potternewton
I, too, oppose the amendments. If I needed anything to reaffirm my opposition to them, a headline in yesterday's Sunday Telegraph did so. It read, "'We need gas masks', say Americans". Such horror stories would continue ad infinitum if the amendment was carried, with disastrous effects on our tourism industry.
The Prime Minister had to make a judgment, balancing the maintenance of the greatest possible normality, particularly for the tourism industry, with the establishment of certainty for local authorities. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has referred to some of the reasons for that and I am sure that other noble Lords more equipped than I will discuss the problems and complexities that a long delay would create for local authorities.
Business and the City also need certainty to maintain stability and to plan ahead. The amendment would send a strong negative signal to business and the City.
There are other reasons for opposing the amendment. It cannot possibly be right or democratic for the executive to have the power to call local elections when it suits them politically. That would be one consequence of the amendments. Unlike parliamentary elections, the date for local elections has always been laid down. It has been amended once or twice, but it has always been laid down in statute. I believe that the same should apply to parliamentary elections. I was sorry that I was not able to be here for Second Reading, but I have read the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, who referred to the Labour Party's policy in 1992. It is, perhaps, unfortunate that I retired in 1993 and the policy then somehow got lost. I firmly believe in having fixed-term Parliaments, just as we have fixed dates for local elections.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, the longer the delay, the more resignations and deaths there would be, which, without by-elections, could mean an undemocratic change of power by default. That would not be acceptable to whichever party lost out. That problem could be overcome only by holding by-elections in particular areas, which would not be acceptable.
998 That brings me to one issue to which the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, did not refer when she introduced the amendment. I assume that the reference in Amendment No. 7 to,a particular local authority area",means that there could be elections in different areas at different times. That would be ludicrous. Arbitrary decisions would be made on which local authorities would hold elections. Who would take those decision? It would be up to the Home Secretary, on the advice of experts relating to small and specific areas of the country. That would be almost impossible to achieve.
I assume that the order would be binding on the local authorities concerned in respect of date and procedure. Would those local authorities be consulted? Would there be discussions between the experts and the local authorities about what should happen? In some cases currently, the experts are saying that certain areas or footpaths should be open, but the local authorities have arbitrarily decided not to open them, without giving any explanation of their reasons for ignoring the scientific advice. There is a lot of confusion about that.
It would also be confusing to tell a tourist from abroad that it was all right to go to Oxfordshire, but not to Bedfordshire, but maybe next month they could go to Dorset. That is nonsense.
Finally, the amendments take no account of the public mood. That mood is shown not just by the opinion polls, which are no more than guides, but by the voices of the people who are closely involved. Various statements have been made in the past few days. Ben Gill, President of the National Farmers Union, has said:Farmers will find 7th June more acceptable".The Conservative leader of Hampshire County Council said that he was "rather glad" at the decision. The chief of tourism in the South West, Malcolm Bell, welcomed the postponement until June and said that,the open-ended postponement advocated by the Tories would be absolutely disastrous for the British Tourist Industry".Carole Hutchings of South Devon Tourist Association, who is a farmer and an owner of a tourist attraction—the two cannot necessarily be separated—said that she was glad of the deferment, but did not want it to go beyond that date.
Even the Opposition are not as united on the issue as they seem. On Second Reading in the other place, Nicholas Winterton said that leaving the date open would be, "unconstitutional and most unsatisfactory", adding that,the House has a duty and a responsibility to specify another date when they are to he held".—[Official Report, Commons, 4/4/01; col. 417.]No stronger case than that can be put.
The noble Baroness has overlooked the difficulties that arise in the rural areas affected by foot and mouth. I fought and won 10 general elections in a large farming area, with 80 villages and hamlets and five towns. I considered it my duty to visit every one of those villages. Luckily, during those 34 years we 999 did not have a foot and mouth outbreak. The Government were right to decide that the local elections should not take place on 3rd May because of the inaccessibility and confusion caused in rural areas by foot and mouth.
Since the Government made that decision, foot and mouth has spread still further. There are now more than 1,000 farms in Great Britain affected by it. Nobody can say whether that number will increase further, but it looks as though it might. If it does—and even if it does not—the circumstances that caused the Government to decide to postpone the election from 3rd May will become increasingly important. As we approach 7th June, which is only two months away, the Government should consider the possibility of postponing the elections still further in the interests of democracy in rural areas. It would not be against the interests of democracy to do so. I therefore warmly support the amendment.
§ Earl Russell
The noble Lord, Lord Renton, is a strong and skilled advocate, but he has dealt with only part of the issue. He has argued about the possibility of there being a case for a further postponement of elections. However, he has not mentioned that the amendment would give the Government the power to postpone elections by statutory instrument. That is a constitutional point of considerable importance.
I appreciate that Governments always like the power to use statutory instruments because, as they put it, they confer flexibility. However, it is usually for precisely that reason that opposition parties of any political colour tend to look askance at taking major powers of constitutional importance to be exercised by statutory instrument.
I am even more surprised to find a power of this kind being suggested not merely from the Opposition Benches but from the Opposition Benches in this House. I believe that it is a familiar point to all of us, and certainly to the Official Opposition, that the powers of this House to control statutory instruments—although now improved, thanks in part to the efforts of the Opposition and to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, in his Politeia lecture—are still very far from perfect.
In major constitutional matters—the postponement of any election must be regarded as a major constitutional matter—this House has always been regarded as having the powers of a long-stop. That is not likely to be set aside. Therefore, to take a power to postpone elections by a procedure which this House is by no means perfectly equipped to check seems to be a constitutional precedent of a type which governments might attempt but on which they would probably be checked in this House if they did so. For such a power to be attempted by an opposition is a paradox of positively Gilbertian proportion. It really does take me aback.
My point with regard to regulations concerns not only voting, to which I always return; it is also a matter of publicity. If one tries to explain regulations to 1000 members of the media, one sees the eyes glaze over before one has finished the first sentence. It is also a matter of parliamentary time. Time is an opposition weapon of by no means negligible significance. As soon as one gives to government a power to do things by regulation, one throws away the weapon of time.
This amendment clearly comes from an Opposition who, whatever they may say in public, have far more confidence in the constitutional propriety of this Government than I would have expected. I hope that Ministers will not take offence if I say that I do not share that confidence. I would not trust myself with this power; and, if I would not trust myself with it, I hope that I can be forgiven for not trusting Ministers with it either.
Precedents exist in relation to this matter, and some things, by convention, are never done by regulation: we do not make new criminal offences or impose new taxes by regulation. I suggest that altering the dates of elections by regulation should perhaps count as another. If anyone on the Opposition Benches or anywhere else in this House can think of a case where a power to postpone elections by regulation has been taken, I shall be very interested to hear it.
§ Earl Russell
Can the noble Lord give me any further context for that? The point is one of some interest.
§ Lord Norton of Louth
I believe that under the 1983 Act, the Home Secretary can lay an order to postpone the date if he does so before 1st February in the year preceding the poll.
§ Earl Russell
Perhaps I may have the chance to reply to the noble Lord. All-party agreement is clearly assumed. However, if we look at occasions on which general or local elections have been postponed—the Parliament and Registration Act 1916, amended by the Parliament and Local Elections Act 1916, postponed local elections—the provision simply allowed a postponement for a fixed period of time. Primary legislation was required. The same was true of the 1940 Act which postponed the general election due in that year.
I have no opinion on what the situation will be in a month's time. However, whatever it may be, it is important that it is resolved by all-party agreement. I believe that that is best achieved by requiring primary legislation, but time will not permit that unless there is all-party agreement. Therefore, if I am called back from marking exam scripts and must sit through the night in order to see through primary legislation to meet an emergency which we cannot now foresee, I shall have only myself to blame; I shall not blame Ministers.
§ 3.45 p.m.
§ Lord Peyton of Yeovil
I can well understand my noble friend Lady Hanham feeling slightly hurt and 1001 surprised at the ingratitude shown by the Government in not rushing to accept her rather generous amendment. I attribute to my noble friend the most kindly feelings. She sees a Prime Minister in an embarrassing and difficult position. He has taken full charge of a totally unpredictable situation—that is, a very nasty disease, the course of which no one can foretell.
The Prime Minister and his Government took the serious step of postponing an election. At the time, one was conscious that they were treading most sensitive ground. Nevertheless, in the end they decided that, due to the plight of the countryside, it would be as well and fair to postpone the election. Such a decision was slightly embarrassing in the face of a good deal of stern opposition from supporters of their party who have very little knowledge and even less concern for what happens in the countryside.
My noble friend's amendment offers—I am sure that she will not be dogmatic about the date—a little flexibility. If the disease were to continue to spread, the Government, and the Prime Minister in particular, would be in a position to say that they were grateful for the flexibility and would not proceed with the election on the date early in June now chosen.
What I am really asking the noble Lord on the Front Bench—it seems to be a question which is easier to ask than it is to answer—is: what will be the Government's position if the situation which caused them originally to make a serious decision does not go away but still endures? Will they then say that they were wrong to postpone the election and that they will not postpone it any longer? It seems rather foolish not to take advantage of the maybe mistaken generosity of my noble friend. As it is, surely the Government will find themselves in a most difficult position if this unpredictable disease is still flaying its horrible course through the countryside.
So far as I know, no one is in a position to forecast with any certainty the course that the disease will take; nor is anyone able to say that he has any certainty as to the correct measures that should now be taken. We are facing an unknown situation and personally I believe that it demands a measure of flexibility. However, if the Government reject out of hand the amendment which the Opposition rather generously offered, I believe that they will have a lot of explaining to do when it comes to retaining the chosen date of 7th June for the elections that have now been postponed.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
I am very surprised to hear the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, suggest that it is an opposition's job to be generous to the government. An opposition's job is not to be generous to the government but to ensure that the legislation that a government introduce is proper, right and relevant to the circumstances that attain at a particular time.
§ Lord Stodart of Swindon
I shall just finish my point. For an opposition to give a government the flexibility 1002 that the amendment contains would in my view undermine and make a misnomer of the word, "opposition".
Surely the duty of an opposition is to put forward views—that is in the interests of democracy and of the people of this country. It is not our duty to consider what would be favourable or unfavourable to the government.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
It is an opposition's duty to ensure that the government are not given powers that override the rights of the people. The rights of the people include being consulted in elections when they expected to be consulted, not when the government think that it is right to consult them.
I was sorry that the date of the local elections was moved to 7th June; I think that that was entirely unnecessary. The Government have decided, for their own reasons, to delay the elections and they have quite properly brought a Bill before the House. It is perfectly proper for the Opposition to try to amend it but the way in which they are trying to do so would, as the noble Earl, Lord Russell, pointed out, give undue power to the government of the day and set a precedent that may be followed in future.
I remember—it was, I believe, in 1985—when the House of Commons decided that it wanted to end the reign of the GLC a year before the proper time. This House said that that was not democratic and prevented it being done. The noble Earl was absolutely right to say that this House acts as a longstop.
I shall obviously not oppose the Bill but the power that the Opposition have proposed is not right. They are failing in their duty to challenge what the Government are doing. I hope that the House will oppose the proposal.
§ Viscount Goschen
I have great sympathy with those who see the role of your Lordships' House as a constitutional backstop that ensures that the Government are not given excessive powers. I listened extremely carefully to the speeches of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who suggested that the House should not write the Government a blank cheque.
Several issues need to be considered in this regard. First, we are effectively in uncharted territory in this context. We have had to take an extraordinary decision. I remind the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, that we are discussing not the Prime Minister's decision but Parliament's decision about whether to make such a delay. Secondly—this point was forcefully put by my noble friend Lord Renton—we do not know what the circumstances will be with regard to the foot and mouth epidemic by June, July or any fixed date. We need to address a specific problem: what happens, as has already been said, if the disease has not been brought under control by 7th June? My noble friend on the Front Bench sought to address that problem and to assist this House and the Government with her proposal. I am sure that she would not say that the mechanism that she proposed for the House to 1003 discuss was perfect but it would at least take care of that eventuality. The Government have not yet dealt with that eventuality. They have said with great firmness that the local elections will be held on 7th June but they have not explained what their policy will be if the disease has not been brought under control by then.
The Government have clearly explained their reasons for suggesting that Parliament should delay the local elections; first, to ensure that everyone is represented properly; and, secondly, to ensure that the feelings of those most affected by the disease are fully taken into account. We do not know whether those criteria will no longer apply one month after the original date that was set for the elections. The Government have to explain to the House today how they propose to cater for the situation that I described. What will they do if the disease has not been brought under control by that time? In that event, they will have clearly demonstrated that delaying for one month was a gesture. They must explain what will happen if the disease is not firmly under control by then.
In the amendment the Opposition are attempting to write considerable safeguards into the Bill. By no means does it involve a blank cheque. We are discussing not the criteria for joining the euro zone but a much more tightly defined matter, which is much more suitable for objective examination. I welcome the efforts of my noble friend on the Front Bench. She attempted to deal with the eventuality that the disease has not been brought under control within a month.
§ Lord Rennard
I want to make a brief point about the amendment that has not yet been sufficiently addressed. The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, may care to discuss it in her winding up remarks. Would not the amendment prolong the elections rather than postpone them? Nominations for the elections have legally closed and almost all of the nominations that will be made for the elections, whenever they are held, have been made. Much of the printed material has been printed and much of it has been delivered. Canvassing has begun and canvassing will continue. The effect of an indefinite postponement of the elections in many areas simply means that the elections will continue for a far longer period than would otherwise have been the case. That would not be welcome in the affected areas.
§ Lord Monro of Langholm
I support the comments of those who have commended the amendment to the House, especially what was said by my noble friend Lord Renton. Like him, I have fought 10 or so elections. It is desperately important for candidates to meet the people. Years ago, one had perhaps 60 or 70 meetings in village halls over a period of three or four weeks but nowadays local government and parliamentary elections increasingly involve walkabouts. That means meeting the people in the streets and villages. However, that is exactly what we do not want to be happening if foot and mouth has not substantially diminished in a few weeks' time.
1004 The Government have argued, "We had a general election during the war". We did indeed have an election in July 1945, but at that time 10 years had elapsed since the previous general election and it was possible to move about the country freely. The only people at risk were many of us in the Far East or on the Continent. We had to vote by post. There was no reason to postpone having an election in July 1945, even if it produced an odd result.
The Minister must explain how the situation has changed. The Prime Minister recently said that the situation would be all right on 7th June. Presumably, information from the Chief Veterinary Officer indicated that the number of cases would have dropped dramatically or ceased. Every day, there are still 24 or 34 cases in the United Kingdom.
We should not be fooled by the thought that the Bill will affect only England. We know that the Bill is simply a cover-up and a reason for putting off the general election by a month. The general election will certainly affect Scotland. Foot and mouth cases are as virulent there as elsewhere and have been right from the start.
The onus is on the Government to produce an argument as to why we should not have the flexibility to postpone the election—not indefinitely, as the noble Earl, Lord Russell indicated—for a maximum of 11 months, or perhaps only for a few months. It may be that by October of November, everything will be cleared up, as I hope to goodness it will. I believe that we are taking a very positive step to help the Government and the country to be in a better position to deal with local and general elections instead of going ahead in early June when we have not the slightest idea what the situation will be on the farms at that time.
§ 4 p.m.
§ Baroness Carnegy of Lour
When the Prime Minister announced that he intended to legislate in this way, to the majority of people it probably seemed on balance a sensible decision. But events have moved on. Indeed, they move on ahead of parliamentary debates. It is difficult to see now, for example, how what the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, said about a local government election in June helping tourism could possibly be the case. Alas, it is increasingly clear that the situation is unlikely to be any better by the beginning of June. That is a growing fear among the increasing number of people close to this pestilence who are becoming overwhelmed and desperate. What is proposed will, I fear, turn out to be an empty gesture.
My belief—it is, I am sure, what most Members of the Commmittee in their hearts are thinking—is that whether or not this Bill goes through there is a growing opinion that the general election should be postponed until all this horror is over. There will be very strong opinion against a general election while it continues. That is what I mean by an empty gesture. I can understand why it was made but I believe that it will turn out not to be very helpful.
§ Baroness Gould of Potternewton
Before the noble Baroness sits down, perhaps I may respond by saying 1005 that the view I expressed is not my view. It is the view of the chief of tourism, for example, in the South West. Devon is extremely badly affected. He welcomed a postponement until June but viewed an open-ended postponement advocated by the Tories as absolutely disastrous for the British tourist industry. That comes from someone who is involved with the matter from day to day. His view is that it is not an empty gesture.
§ Baroness Carnegy of Lour
Tourists will not be thinking about whether they happen to be here when there is an election. They are thinking about what restrictions may be in place because of foot and mouth disease. The noble Baroness may not be in direct contact with the people most deeply affected by this legislation. However, if she reads the newspapers she will see that it will become increasingly difficult to sustain what we should all like to sustain; namely, that as much of the country as possible should be open to tourists. It is not easy. At the moment there are parts of the country—I live in one of them—where it is possible for tourists to go. But they cannot just go anywhere. It is becoming increasingly difficult. Quite honestly, I do not believe that that argument is going to hold up for very much longer. I hate to say it, but I believe that Members of the Committee opposite should realise that.
§ Lord Norton of Louth
I had not intended to speak on this set of amendments which is why I have been busy writing on the back of someone else's envelopes. However, there are one or two points that I should briefly like to make.
I agree completely with the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, that this House has a role as a constitutional long-stop. I believe also that this House, as a House, has another very important role; namely, to force government to justify what they are doing. That is particularly important when there has been very little time for debate in the other place. It is therefore quite legitimate that amendments should be tabled to force the Government to come forward and justify the specific provisions of the Bill. We have had justifications for the Bill but there is a need for somewhat greater clarity.
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, raised the point about setting precedents, particularly if we provided the power to do something by order. As I mentioned, there is a power for that already in statute. I made that point not in order to justify the power but merely to establish that it existed. I have my own doubts about whether we should have in law that particular provision.
We are in uncharted territory as regards postponing elections for any specific period in peace time. Therefore, it requires very serious reflection and justification. We are perfectly entitled to probe the Government in this way with this type of amendment.
The amendment forces the Government to clarify precisely the justification for the measure. One argument—I believe a necessary argument—for postponing elections is the practical argument; that is, that it is difficult to hold elections when people are 1006 engaged in fighting the crisis of foot and mouth. It takes them away, and it makes campaigning somewhat difficult, as we have heard.
The problem is sticking with a precise date when we may still face a crisis. Therefore, we are left with the justification being solely one of symbolism. That is a somewhat dangerous basis on which to delay an election. I accept that we need a limit. I do not believe that it can be an open-ended commitment. The amendment before us is not open-ended. But we need to consider very carefully what to do if the crisis is still with us on 3rd May. What will have been the point of having the delay if the problems still exist?
I realise that the question is extraordinarily difficult. We are engaged in a balancing act. Getting the balance right may be difficult. That is all the more reason why we should subject this measure to very detailed scrutiny.
§ Baroness Scott of Needham Market
Perhaps I may declare an interest as an elected member of Suffolk County Council. It certainly seems to me that there is every difference in the world between the Prime Minister choosing not to exercise his right to call an election when he sees fit and the decision to cancel elections which have been fixed for four years.
It seems that we are in something of a bind. We all tend to agree with the proposition that the county elections should be postponed, but we agree for different reasons. That causes some difficulty in deciding how we should move forward from here. If the reason for postponing county elections were the practical difficulties of campaigning in rural areas—as a rural councillor I have some experience, although nothing like as long as other Members of the Committee who have spoken—then those practical difficulties have to be put into the context of the 24 million people who have the right to vote in those elections.
But the Government never said that they were making the decision for practical reasons. They have always said that it is due to that most ephemeral thing—public mood. We can all support that but it is very difficult to measure it and to think about it in anything other than a heartfelt way; and so we have this difficulty about where we go next and how we move on.
In those terms, a proposition that says that we can indefinitely postpone elections, or postpone them for a year, has huge practical implications. I shall not take up the time of the Committee because we rehearsed those very well last week on Second Reading. But as a county councillor and someone who has been leader of a county council, I am aware of the immense practical difficulties in trying to run a council on a month-by-month basis. Not least is the great difficulty in relation to the 25 per cent of councillors who do not intend to stand again in May. They will gradually either drift off and not turn up to meetings or, quite possibly, hand in their resignations and then there are no provisions for by-elections. That will leave areas unrepresented, councils changing hands, and so on.
1007 We must find a mechanism to weigh up the difficulties which will exist for some people in casting a vote in county elections and the difficulties which will be caused for county councils. Let us remember that this is about the provision of services such as firefighting, libraries, planning, housing, schools, and all those things which local authorities do. It is important that we find a way to balance the two issues. For that reason, we shall oppose the amendments.
§ Lord Boardman
The debate has centred on the consequences of postponement. The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, said that the amendment was favourable to the Opposition, and that it is unusual for the Opposition to table an amendment which is favourable to the Government. He left it somewhat undecided as to which side it would favour. I have no idea—
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
I am obliged to the noble Lord for giving way. It was not me who said that it was favourable to the Government, but his noble friend Lord Peyton of Yeovil.
§ Lord Boardman
I happily accept what the noble Lord says. My point is brief. I support the many arguments from this side of the House which have been far more ably put. I refer to the consequences on those mainly affected by foot and mouth disease; that is, the farming community and all whose future depends upon it.
I must declare an interest. I am a farmer who at present, thank God, is not affected by foot and mouth. The feeling in the farming community is one of fear and fright. There have been many losses. Sheep cannot be moved from one place to another. The farmers wish this situation to end. They do not mind which way this will go, whether it is one date or another. They say, "Let us see that this has ended, and do not let people traipse round electioneering and all the other things which go with that while we have this risk hanging over our heads".
Insofar as it is right to postpone the election because of damage to the farming community, it should be postponed to a time when such dangers do not exist. To predict that the farming community and all whose future depends on it will be more vulnerable in June than in May is speculation, but there are many who believe that. I believe that the date should be left open. If, indeed, the date in June, which is in the Bill, is found to be undesirable, with the same risks involved as were thought by the Government that there would be in May, it should be postponed. I should be very sorry on behalf of the farming community if we said, "No, come what may it will be that date and if it is much worse on 7th June than it was on 3rd May or it is today, that is just too bad for you". Our duty to the farming community is to give the opportunity for a postponement as proposed in the amendments.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
The debate on the first group of amendments has been wide-ranging. It comes 1008 to the core issue which separates the two main parties over the Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, ably expressed the case from her perspective. She was joined by other noble Lords opposite in setting out a case as to why 7th June should not be set in stone as a date on which the local elections should be held and from which they should be deferred. I shall simply put the case for the Government and explain why we take a contrary view.
We believe that there are a number of reasons why it is not a good idea to leave the date uncertain. I referred to such reasons at Second Reading but I believe that it is worth rehearsing them again. Briefly, there are three reasons. Perhaps I may begin by reminding your Lordships that we consider that from a purely practical point of view there was no reason why the local elections could not go ahead on schedule. Roads are open, with only a tiny number of exceptions, as are schools, libraries and many other public buildings, certainly those in which elections take place. We do not believe that that position will change in the next couple of months.
Your Lordships may want to contemplate the interpretation which would be placed on the decision potentially to delay indefinitely the local elections by those who may be considering visiting the United Kingdom from abroad or, indeed, by our home-grown tourist industry. It is in the interests of every citizen, town and country dweller alike, not least those farmers who have a diversified base to their business, for confidence in tourism to be restored as quickly as possible. Like my noble friend Lady Gould, I feel that it is worth reminding ourselves of the words of Malcolm Bell of the south-west tourism authority, which were quoted at Second Reading. When the announcement was made of the deferral to 7th June, he stated:This is a positive announcement. There's confusion at the moment about whether or not the country is open. Delaying the election until June sends out a clear message that, before the summer holidays begin, Britain is back to normal".How would he and his colleagues in the tourism industry feel if the amendments were passed? I believe that he would argue that the whole matter would again be thrown into doubt. The fact that the amendments would allow the local elections to take place on different dates in different counties is particularly unfortunate. Let us imagine the message that that would send out. As my noble friend Lady Gould said, there would be different messages in different places, such as, "You can go to Dorset but Wiltshire is still closed. Somerset might open next month". That sort of approach is really rather barmy.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ Lord Peyton of Yeovil
I thank the Minister for giving way. I believe he stated just now something about Britain being back to normal on 7th June. Is he saying that come the appropriate date beforehand, the Government will behave as if Britain were back to 1009 normal by 7th June, and that they will completely disregard the circumstances? Unless he is saying that, what he says does not make any sense.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
I believe that the noble Lord has misunderstood me. I quoted the words of Malcolm Bell from the south-west tourist authority. The message that he was trying to make clear was that Britain was back to normal as regards tourists coming here, and for the purposes of being a tourist in the UK. That was the point which he was trying to get across, and which we need to echo, not least for the benefit of our tourism industry. We need to stress that people can feel free to come to our country and visit the many attractions which are completely unaffected by the outbreak of foot and mouth. We need to do all we can to restore confidence.
We must also take into account the position of councillors who intend to stand down at the next election. That point was ably made by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott. The other point which she made about the impact on individual local authorities, were there to be perpetual untimed delays is also important. It would be unreasonable to expect those who are prepared to accept a short delay to continue putting off indefinitely ceasing to be a councillor. The points about councillors resigning and county councils, in particular, becoming more uncertain about where the balance of control lies, are also important.
One point which perhaps has not been dwelt on but is nonetheless important is what would happen to the overall balance of control of, for instance, the Local Government Association were there to be an indefinite delay or, perhaps, a staggering of elections, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham suggested. A councillor may resign his office at any time, and the Government are grateful that most councillors will probably accept the position of a short extension—as envisaged in the Bill—to their term of office. But it would be unfair to expect them to carry on in an open-ended way with the perpetual deferral of local elections.
Whether by death or resignations, vacancies will occur. In certain cases the pattern of such vacancies could affect political control. It simply would not be right for the political make-up of councils to be at the vagaries of chance, with local people having no idea when they can restore the council which they had chosen or be given the opportunity to choose another type of political control for their local authorities.
All the points I have set out illustrate the importance of having certainty on the issue of when local elections should be held. I suggest that amendments which provide for the elections to be postponed until specific conditions in relation to controlling and eradicating foot and mouth disease are met on an area-by-area basis propose a recipe for chaos. That would be the case even if the criteria for determining when the disease is under control were truly objective, which I believe is seriously under doubt and question.
If these amendments were passed, Parliament on a regular basis would needlessly have to give further attention to when a local election could take place in a 1010 particular given and specific locality. I am loath to disturb the positive and generally constructive attitude that has prevailed during our deliberations on the Bill, and I am not seeking to make a partisan point, but I cannot help speculating what the reaction would have been if the tables had been turned. I am sure that if the Government had put forward a Bill which left the election date uncertain, we would have been accused of taking too great powers and that we would have attracted Opposition amendments to insert a fixed date.
I also suspect that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, would have been right to press his constitutional argument because it is an important point. I suspect that the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee, which in general has given the Bill in its current form a clean bill of health, might well have had something to say about a power to set election dates by order. I appreciate the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. I believe that his interpretation of the legislation is right and that, in a sense, the party opposite is being consistent with its 1983 legislation. However, I worry about such order-making powers.
The Government believe that it is possible to hold elections now, but, on balance, decided to defer them for a short while. There is no good reason to leave it open to a new date. We believe that the elections should be held on 7th June. Therefore, I cannot invite the Committee to support the amendments and I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, will withdraw them.
§ Lord Norton of Louth
Before the noble Lord sits down, I heard what he said in response to the amendment. It was perfectly justified and he described where he saw the amendment as flawed. However, he did not develop the other side of his argument, which was to justify the existing provisions. He mentioned it briefly at the end in terms of balance, but I remain unclear where the priority lies as regards the principal case for 7th June.
The noble Lord made the case that it was practically possible to proceed with an election on election day, but the argument advanced by the Home Secretary in another place was the practical one as regards preventing people from devoting themselves to local elections because they are busy fighting the crisis of foot and mouth. If that situation pertains on 7th June, I am not clear what the justification is for sticking with that date.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
The important point is that the legislation seeks to create certainty. As I have argued, it creates that certainty and people know where they are. We have a fixed date and we can have an election contest. The Government took the balanced view that 7th June was about right and my right honourable friend the Home Secretary made the point during his contribution in another place that having been given additional time and leadership locally and nationally, we hope that by then progress will have been made to ensure that all the mechanisms are in place to defeat the disease.
1011 Those are the reasons and the arguments before us and the Government must reach a balanced view. That is so particularly given the serious nature of the decision to postpone the elections for a period. All those issues hold together.
§ Lord Peyton of Yeovil
Perhaps I may press the noble Lord on the point of 7th June. Is he saying that come what may an election will be held on 7th June or, alternatively, that the Government are satisfied that by 7th June all will be back to normal in the countryside? If they are, I believe that the Minister is obliged to produce some evidence.
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
I shall deal with the last point first. I did not say that everything in the countryside would be back to normal. I made the point, which I repeated, that it was argued by the tourist industry that it was important to establish an aura of normality so that people could have greater confidence in coming to this country from abroad. That is important for the confidence of the tourism industry.
We all hope that the foot and mouth disease will be well on the way to eradication by 7th June, but we cannot be absolutely certain of that. It would be foolish to speculate on that point. However, we are trying to put in place certainty as regards this set of local elections and we have established a date.
§ Lord Peyton of Yeovil
I am sorry to bother the Minister again, but he has not answered the first part of my question. Are the Government of a firm state of mind that come what may there will be an election on 7th June?
§ Lord Bassam of Brighton
I thought that I had made it clear that we expect the local elections to be on 7th June. That is an important point. We want to provide certainty so that the elections can take place. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, made the point that the elections are taking place in the sense of campaigning activity on the ground. We want to be certain and have a crystal clear local election date so that the uncertainty about them and the fate of each county and each unitary authority can be properly determined.
§ Baroness Hanham
I am delighted that our amendment sparked such a comprehensive debate on the provisions of the Bill. I would have been even more delighted had Members of the Committee addressed themselves more precisely to the amendment which I moved.
It was most specific. It was to enable particular areas to have the local election date extended. If a certain situation pertained, those areas could in the event be the whole area covered by a county council election. My amendment opens up the possibility that for a number of reasons it may not be possible to hold elections in every area on 7th June.
1012 I understand that the decision to move the elections to 7th June was taken during a short space of time. It was also taken because of the public-mood music—and perfectly understandable that was. But it cannot have been taken just because of anxieties about the public mood; it must have been taken in the light of the practicalities of running an election—any election, local or general—while the country is under siege. It is under siege from the dire disease of foot and mouth and because some people in the countryside are lamentably affected by what is happening. The practicalities of running elections under such circumstances must surely have weighed with the Prime Minister between the time he had made his visit to the field and his announcement of their delay.
We are in a constitutional quagmire as regards the whole Bill and the situation which exists. I want to make it clear at the outset that no one on these Benches would have wanted the situation to happen. But as it has, and as we have had to move into a constitutional position that is almost unheard of, we must do so in a way that is sensible and sound and provides flexibility within the Government's proposals. We say that, despite what the Government and all of us hope, the situation on 7th June may be no better than it is on 3rd May. As I said in my opening remarks, that is increasingly appearing to be the case. Contrary to expectations, the disease is not diminishing or going away. Over the weekend new areas have opened up, totally unexpectedly, and the situation is moving towards that of last week.
We say to the Government—this is perhaps not a matter for the Opposition but we make this offer—that we do not want to have another debate like this to postpone for a little longer a local election in a specific area. The amendment gives the option of an extension to May of next year as the absolute limit of what would be allowed, but it also gives the Government the option to bring before this House a proposal that one county, if that is what is required, will be unable to hold the elections, for all the reasons with which we are familiar. I have little doubt that this House would view that with a great deal of sympathy.
It is for that reason that I table this amendment. We heard at Second Reading—there has been much coverage in the press—about the problems of tourism. We understand the economic spin-off into the tourist industry from foot and mouth disease. A great deal of anxiety is already being generated among those who intend to come to this country but are concerned about what they may find when they get here. The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, said that some Americans wondered whether they should bring their gas masks. It will be very difficult now to dent that particular perception.
It is also quite difficult to say that every area of the country will be open; it is not at the moment, and from time to time areas will be closed as the disease spreads. It may be a little time before one is able to say that England and Wales are open to tourists.
I am concerned that in this Bill we are not talking about local elections but the general election. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, here we are 1013 demonstrating the fig leaf of county council elections but, while we do that, we must make whatever efforts we can to ensure that the clauses in the Bill are suitable.
However, having listened with care—I appreciate that the Government will not give way on this particular matter—it is important in terms of timescale that the Bill is ultimately passed. Therefore, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resume.
Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.