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Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Will the hon. Gentleman explain to the House his apparent total lack of concern about the news that he has just been given that his party leader has resigned?

The Second Deputy Chairman: Order. We should return to the amendment that is before the House.

Mr. Davey: I am tempted to answer that question, but under your direction, Mr. Lord, I shall not. At least our leader has given brilliant leadership to his party, unlike the right hon. Gentleman's leader.

The Government should, consistent with the Nolan recommendations, refer the date and the process of elections to an independent election commission. Having accepted the recommendations of the Nolan committee, one would have thought that the Government would implement them. There should be more transparency, certainty and stability in the management and organisation of elections. When the Government were in opposition they railed against secondary legislation and such decisions being taken by orders, but now they are in government they are changing their mind.

I support the arguments put by my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake). I hope that the House will force the Government to put the date of the election in the Bill.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster): I rise to speak about the date of the first election of the mayor and the assembly. I do not know what the Government are up to with regard to the second and third elections, and as I am a bear of very little brain, I see no point in trying to unravel what they are attempting to do in the second and third elections until we know what they are doing in the first. As the Chinese say,

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"On long journey, first step most important." I would feel much firmer on the ground under my feet if I knew what the Government were doing.

Uncharacteristically, I have a certain suspicion of the Government: I am not normally prone to such scepticism. Whenever we discuss dates with the present Administration, there is always a degree of fluidity as to when things are going to happen. That certainly applies to recesses. We still do not know whether we shall go into recess for the half-term holidays, although we are hearing noises about how difficult that would be.

I do not know whether the Government's uncertainty on these matters is dictated by--[Interruption.] I do not have the total attention of my Front-Bench colleagues, but Labour Members are listening to me attentively, and they are, of course, my most important audience. I do not know whether the Government's inability to give us firm dates is a function of profound incompetence or immensely sophisticated psychological warfare. Ultimately, I do not mind, but it means that we have to press to get the date.

5.15 pm

We were originally told that the elections would be in May 2000. There then crept into the public prints a story--which may not have had validity, but it sounded as though it came from someone who knew--that the Prime Minister was extremely anxious to have the mayor beside him in the dome on 31 December 1999, and that he really could not see in the new millennium without the mayor. I think that I could manage to do so, but it was said that it was important to the Prime Minister that this experience should be shared. When the story disappeared from our screens, I suspected that officials had been quietly briefing that there was no way in which the elections could be ready by autumn 1999, and that this was a foolish ambition on the part of the Administration.

It would be profoundly helpful if, at this stage, we could be definitively told--as I thought the Deputy Prime Minister had done in an off-the-cuff remark some time ago--that the elections will be in May 2000. As the Bellman said in "The Hunting of the Snark":

I look forward to the third time we are given the date of May 2000--I hope that that is what the Minister will tell us.

I look forward to that for another reason, which relates to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) in Committee yesterday. He was temporarily incorrect in saying that the Conservative party had never won an election for the London county council. Those present will remember that, as soon as I half rose, he immediately corrected himself and agreed that it had won.

In correspondence with the Minister, I have discussed the LCC election of 1949, when the Conservative party won as many seats as the Labour party, which represented a major swing to the Conservatives. The one Liberal who was elected said that he would vote with the Conservative party. The Labour party used a stratagem to ensure that it retained power, but I shall not go into that, because you would rule me out of order, Mr. Lord.

I do not resent the fact that the Conservative party got 120,000 more votes in London that day and yet did not win the election. I would not regard that as an argument

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for proportional representation, and I was happy to vote against all the Liberal Democrat propositions on PR yesterday, because it did not affect me. Such experiences concentrate one's mind on the small print when dealing with the Labour party in matters of Greater London. That is why I hope that we shall be given a date.

I do not think that that is an unreasonable request. We may have mutual doubts about the quality of the legislation before us. A learned lady--I think her name was Mrs. Hunt--once said that the entire administration of the Roman empire could be derived from the construction ut with the subjunctive. I do not have the same sense of total coherence and cohesiveness in this legislation, and it is not unreasonable for Opposition Members to ask to know the date of the first election. It may even make us more enthusiastic about the legislation than we have so far been.

Mrs. Lait: I endorse the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), although I would not go quite so far as he does in his two thoughts as to why no date has been given for the first election. I shall be charitable and say that it is an oversight.

Mr. Raynsford indicated dissent.

Mrs. Lait: No, it is not. Clearly, some of the more Machiavellian theories are true. The Conservative party and the Liberal Democrat party are in the process of selecting their candidates for mayor in a clear and open way, whereas the Labour party is using this issue as a face-saving device to hide the chaos it is in.

We are clearly not going to get any satisfaction on this issue, but it is always worth a try. Certainly, Conservative Members will be very unhappy if no clear statement about the date is made in the Bill. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster pointed out, specifying a date would be quite an enticement to people to take an interest. Despite the Government's claim that there is great interest in London, we are not finding that people are desperate to vote for a London assembly. Having a date for the first election might help to provide democratic legitimacy.

I share the reservations expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) about the failure to inform us of when the second and third elections might take place. I am deeply suspicious about that: I suspect that the Government may wish to hold annual elections in London. In a previous existence, I represented two local authorities, one of which held annual elections and the other four-yearly elections. I agree with those who have said that it makes no difference: the turnout is the same. What is clear is that a small proportion of people are prepared to go out and do their democratic duty in all circumstances and at all times.

Mr. Wilkinson: I, too, have experience of both systems. Does my hon. Friend agree that four-yearly rather than annual elections would increase the likelihood of a large swing? Such an arrangement gives local authorities time in which to get on and govern, and also gives the electorate time to make up their minds on the basis of balanced judgments.

Mrs. Lait: I certainly think that it takes much longer to change the control of any authority when there are

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annual elections. The problem is that, in such circumstances, authorities often end up with no overall control. The effect is, dare I say, similar to the effect of any form of proportional representation. No decisions are made; any decisions that are cobbled together are cobbled together behind closed doors, and no one who voted for any of the councillors concerned knows what policy will eventually be adopted. In fact, annual elections have two drawbacks, one of which is that they represent an unsatisfactory and unofficial form of proportional representation.

Not only do we need clarification of the second and third dates; as the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) pointed out, there is a possibility of Machiavellian gerrymandering beyond a four-year term. At the least, we need an assurance that elections will take place within a four-year period. I am sure that none of us would find a longer period satisfactory.

Mr. Forth: I am not as charitable as my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait). I suspect that there is something profoundly unsatisfactory--indeed, probably something sinister--about the Bill's present wording. I say that for an obvious reason. When it comes to a question as vital as elections and the timing of elections, surely the electorate--not to say MPs--are entitled to know at this stage where we stand, what we are being asked to approve and where we go from here.

As so often, the Bill says that all these matters will be determined by the Secretary of State. That in itself is profoundly unsatisfactory. We know the way in which the Government tend to make decisions: they make them on the basis of focus groups or opinion polls. As myhon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) was, I think, the first to point out, there is every possibility that the Government are trying to give themselves electoral manoeuvring space to ensure that the timing of the elections is arranged in the most favourable way according to what they are being told, or think they are being told, by the current focus groups or opinion polls.

That takes us back--although you will be pleased to learn, Mr. Lord, that I do not intend to rehearse the arguments--into the territory of referendums, and what I consider to be their invalidity, in the sense that the timing of a question is crucial to receiving the desired answer. We are, I think, entitled to suspect that is what the Government are after now: that they want to be able to time elections, whether the first or subsequent elections, on the basis of what they believe will be most favourable to them. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us credible assurances that will not and cannot be the case.

That leads us to the question--also identified by my hon. Friends--of the relative merits of yearly and four-yearly elections. I have two problems with the idea of annual elections, one being the simple problem of cost. There will be a serious cost penalty if we have to crank up the election machine every year and expect the taxpayer and voter to pay. As my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham said, there is no evidence that annual elections will produce greater enthusiasm and participation; indeed, the opposite may well be the case. Until my hon. Friend put us right, I would have said that, if anything, the turnout for annual elections would be lower than that for four-yearly ones.

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Another factor is continuity and stability of administration. Annual elections for any elected body mean the possibility, if not the probability, that control will change annually, preventing continuity or policy and producing what may well be a chaotic arrangement. That can be seen now in hung councils. Frequent control changes, as we all know, are a prescription for inadequate administration and inadequate policies.

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