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Clause 3

Timing of ordinary elections

Mr. Ottaway: I beg to move amendment No. 5, in page 3, leave out lines 2 to 6.

The Second Deputy Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 31, in page 3, line 2, leave out from 'on' to end of line 3 and insert

'the first Thursday in May in the year following the Royal Assent of this Act'. No. 77, in page 3, leave out lines 4 to 6. No. 67, in page 3, line 6, at end insert--
', such a poll not to take place more than four years after the previous election.'. No. 6, in page 3, line 7, after '(3)', insert--
'The poll of the first ordinary election shall be held on 4th May 2000 and'. No. 78, in page 3, line 10, leave out from beginning to 'subject' and insert 'Subsection (3) above is'.

Mr. Ottaway: I shall speak to amendments Nos. 5, 6 and 67. For the sake of convenience, I shall deal first with amendment No. 6, which would provide that the date of the first election is stated in the Bill. We believe that strongly.

5 pm

The Minister and his boss have proudly proclaimed that the first election will take place on 4 May 2000. I know that they are holding back a lot--not only reserve powers, but announcements to be made in orders--but that is one date that they do not have to hold back, because they have already announced it. We believe that the date should be in the Bill, if only to give some sense to amendments Nos. 5 and 67.

Amendment No. 5 addresses the point that the Secretary of State has reserve powers to announce when the second and third ordinary elections will take place.

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The Conservative party is deeply suspicious that that is not wholly unconnected with the declared intention in the local government White Paper to move the London boroughs to annual, or perhaps biennial, elections.

The Conservative party is happy with the present timetable for London elections--there is no need to fiddle with the dates--and we are happy for elections to take place once every four years. The Government want to move the dates of the London borough elections to try to increase turnout--that is a good intention--but there is absolutely no evidence that annual elections increase turnout. All the signs are that it makes no difference.

For one reason or another, elections regularly take place in May and missing the odd year does not seem to make much difference. The public will turn out if they want to, regardless of whether elections are annual or every four years.

Amendment No. 67 provides that, if we are unsuccessful with amendments Nos. 5 and 6 and the Secretary of State retains the power to hold the elections at his discretion, under any circumstance the term for the new authority should be not more than four years. A five or six-year term would not be acceptable.

There could be indefinite suspension of elections under the Bill. Although I do not believe for a moment that that is in the Government's mind, it would be safer, for clarity's sake, to confirm that no term could be more than four years. I hope that the Minister will give serious consideration to the amendments.

Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): I shall speak to amendments Nos. 31, 77 and 78.

I am surprised that the Government have made it necessary for the Liberal Democrats and the official Opposition to table amendments on the timing of the elections. All hon. Members are agreed that there will be an election for the Greater London authority, but the date on which it will be held is missing from the Bill--unless we count the powers of the Secretary of State, who has infiltrated every nook and cranny of the Bill, to select a date of his choosing. Those powers also apply to second and third elections.

That leaves the process open to gerrymandering. We are considering the use of independent commissions to establish electoral structures and dates for elections, and the Government should consider that in this case. We need a clear steer on when the election will be held. We recognise that unforeseen circumstances may preclude putting a specific date in the Bill, but it most certainly should not be within the power of the Secretary of State to decide whether the election takes place at all. I should be grateful if the Minister responded to that point. What happens if, before the elections to the GLA are held, the Government change and the new Secretary of State is not favourable towards the establishment of a GLA? Will the Bill allow the Secretary of State to decide never to hold elections?

I hope that the Government agree that this serious point requires consideration and that our concerns are valid. I look forward to a constructive response from the Minister.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): I very much welcome the two amendments in the name of my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State andmy hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South

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(Mr. Ottaway). The amendments make an extremely important point--they show that the Government's attitude towards democratic elections is that they can be moveable feasts at the behest of the Secretary of State's diktat. That is not how the electorate want electoral dates to be set. The first election for the Greater London authority should be clearly stated in the Bill so that there is no possibility whatever of malpractice by the Government.

If the Government cannot impose a candidate who is acceptable to the Labour party leadership within the allotted time, they might wish to postpone the first election. If they decide that the election campaign has not been sufficiently well prepared, or if other extraneous circumstances that we cannot anticipate occur, the Government might change the date of the first election. Many are the occasions on which a date quoted in Hansard has, for various reasons, not been upheld, which is why my right hon. and hon. Friends are correct to insist in amendment No. 6 that the first date should be in the Bill--as, too, does the Liberal Democrat party in its amendments.

The election to the Greater London authority should not be affected by notional plans for the reform of local government in London. Let us at least get the format for the GLA right and the timetable for elections established in an immutable way, with which the Secretary of State cannot interfere, before we start to reform local government. The electorate wants the first elections to take place, as we have been promised, on 4 May 2000 and the second and third elections to take place four years thereafter. The Bill should not empower the Secretary of State to change the anticipated dates of those elections.

I hope that the House will be rigorous in imposing its view on this matter, because once we allow the timing of the elections to be subject to the Secretary of State's discretion, the matter is likely to become party political rather than constitutional. We must safeguard the democratic interests of Londoners.

Mr. Edward Davey: I had not intended to speak in this debate, but the comments of the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) have tempted me to do so. He raised an important point, which the House should consider: why are the Government not prepared to state in the Bill the date of the first elections? The Minister must answer that question if he is to convince the Committee. The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood said that it may be because of the internal machinations of the London Labour party, which has only just managed to agree on the selection process for its candidates. Those may be subject to review--we shall have to wait and see.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): As the hon. Gentleman is so concerned about the selection process, can he tell me who the Liberal Democrat candidate will be?

Mr. Davey: Details of our selection process have been published, and we are now approving candidates. There have been no internal squabbles in our party about the process. It is open and above board and follows democratic procedures. If the hon. Member for Croydon,

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South (Mr. Ottaway) wants to intervene, I am sure that he can explain that his party's selection process is also democratic and open.

Mr. Ottaway: The hon. Gentleman tempts me. Apparently, the leader of the Liberal Democrat party is at this moment resigning from office. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could enlighten us on the method of election for that post.

Mr. Davey: I have no knowledge of that. If it were true, any election would be open and democratic, as for many years we have been the only British political party to have a one member, one vote system for the election of our leader. I am glad that the Conservative party is modernising itself. It is about time, because for years it has been the most undemocratic party in Britain.

We have not had a good explanation of why the Government are not prepared to put the date of the election in the Bill. That may be because of the internal problems of the Labour party or because they are worried about the passage of the legislation. They may be worried about their opinion poll ratings in May 2000. Perhaps they want to leave it as late in the day as possible so that they can be sure of winning. Only time will tell, but Ministers should have more confidence and should be prepared to include the date in the Bill.

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