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Mr. Brake: Is the right hon. Gentleman honestly saying that every hung council that includes Conservative councillors is being run incompetently, and that those councillors are making no decisions?

Mr. Forth: No. I am saying that too many decisions are being made, and that they are often inconsistent and lacking in continuity of purpose. I accept that decisions must be made; I even accept, however reluctantly, that if the verdict of the voters is that there shall be no overall control, something must be done about that. My point is that returning to the electorate every year at least invites the possibility that they will alter the disposition of the council, and that there will be different arrangements, different coalitions and different control. That cannot be good for local administration.

The Minister has an obligation to tell us what arrangements the Government believe should be in the Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) said, those arrangements should preferably be stated in the Bill. The Minister may argue that is not entirely reasonable--that it would be rash to name a date before the Bill has completed its stages and been given Royal Assent--but I feel that he should at least tell us the reasoning behind the Government's proposals, and reassure us that none of the unease expressed by Conservative Members is well founded. I hope that he can assure us, and the people of London, that everything will be done properly, and will be above board.

Mr. Raynsford: This has been a remarkable debate. It has been characterised by paranoia, and by astonishing suspicion about the Government's intentions. We have been accused of sinister behaviour by the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), and of anti-democratic behaviour by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson). Before the hon. Gentleman makes further accusations of anti-democratic behaviour, he should reflect on the fact that it was his party that took from the people of London the right to vote for their own citywide authority.

We have heard paranoia from some Members who are prone to such tendencies: the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst probably fits into that category. I fear that the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) is moving in that direction, but we also heard it from other Members of normally more sound and mature judgment: the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) and the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait).

I have to be charitable and assume that Members have been distracted. In the case of the Liberal Democrats, clearly, the news that their party leader is resigning has had slightly destabilising implications. I assume that, because the fear of losing members of one's party also has a destabilising effect, the loss of various Conservative

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Members of the European Parliament has probably also had a destabilising impact on Conservative Members. In charity, I will allow that interpretation.

5.30 pm

Mr. Edward Davey: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Raynsford: I will in a moment, but I have first to disappoint all the right hon. and hon. Members who have had paranoid delusions about our intentions. Let me explain why the date of the election is not in the Bill. The explanation is simple.

As hon. Members will recall, the Bill was published on 3 December. The date for the first election for the Greater London authority was only announced by the Deputy Prime Minister on Second Reading of the Bill on 14 December, so it was simply not possible for the date to appear in the Bill.

The position has now changed. As I have already made clear, we are a listening Government and are only too happy to accommodate reasonable amendments, even from other parties, if we believe that there is justice behind them. In that spirit, I am happy to assure hon. Members that we are happy to accommodate their wishes. The date is now known and it is possible to incorporate a date in the Bill. Therefore, I am happy to consider amendment No. 6.

I have to make one caveat. Because we have to have provision against the possibility of a national disaster, or an event that makes it impossible to hold the election on that date, there must be a consequential amendmentthat allows flexibility against such circumstances. [Interruption.] I can assure hon. Members that the resignation of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst would not be a national disaster and would certainly not require the postponement of elections to the Greater London authority.

Subject to that one caveat, we will be happy to consider the amendment and come forward with a further amendment that puts the intended election date in the Bill. We ask Opposition Members, for reasons that I will explain, to agree that the amendments that would remove the Secretary of State's power to make an order setting the dates on which the second and third ordinary elections would be held should be withdrawn. I would be happy to discuss with the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) between now and Report the form that those consequential amendments should take.

We do not seek that flexibility because we have a sinister and secret agenda to amend the dates of the first and subsequent elections for political advantage. We are as anxious as everyone else that the GLA should be elected at the earliest practicable date, but, for the practical reasons to which I have referred, the dates cannot become immutable. We must be able to respond to unforeseen circumstances that might make the postponement of the election unavoidable.

Conservative Members' protestations would have been more convincing if the legislation that they introduced to set up the Greater London council in the first place--the London Government Act 1963--and, indeed, the Local Government Act 1972, had provided for the first ordinary

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elections to counties and districts to be fixed not by statute, but by the Secretary of State. Therefore, their record in government was not blameless.

Having said that, we intend to ensure that there will normally be a period of no more than four years between elections, but we need to allow an element of flexibility, not least because of the possibility of further primary legislation being introduced in relation to the dates on which London borough elections will be held. For that reason, we believe that it is necessary to retain clause 3(2), which enables the dates of the second and third elections to be moved if that becomes necessary.

In the light of the commitment that I have given to consider amendment No. 6, I hope that the hon. Members for Croydon, South and for Carshalton and Wallington will now agree to withdraw their amendments.

Mr. Brake: I have listened carefully to what the Minister has said. I hope that he noted that the Liberal Democrats were very calm and collected throughout the debate, regardless of what was happening elsewhere.

The Minister has made a major concession and I am happy not to press my amendments.

Mr. Brooke: I have not been specifically provoked by the Minister, but I could see that my father's role in the 1963 legislation was going to play a part in our proceedings. On behalf of the spirit of my late noble father, I will say that there was a long gap between Second Reading in 1962 and the election in 1965--a longer gap than that which prevails between today's debate and the date of the first election, so the then Government can be excused for not having set the date.

It is rare that any speech of mine or of my colleagues produces so immediate a concession and favourable response from the Government. I am grateful to them. However, I note that the explanation as to why the date was not in the Bill was that 11 days passed between publication of the Bill and Second Reading. The Government were unable to make up their mind by 3 December, but were able to make up their mind by 14 December, or whatever the date was.

The spirit of my noble father draws the Prince of Denmark briefly into the debate. I was Under-Secretary to Sir Keith Joseph, that great man. The job of Under-Secretary to that great man, who spent an enormous amount of time pacing the battlements of Elsinore, was occasionally to dart from a turret, tug him by the sleeve and say, "Secretary of State, the time has come to make a decision." I had not previously thought of the Deputy Prime Minister as suffering from the same degree of indecisiveness. Indeed, in physical terms, if I were to put them together in the same frame, I would have cast the Deputy Prime Minister in the role of Sancho Panza and the late Sir Keith in the capacity of Don Quixote. Why the Government could not make up their mind by publication of the Bill on 3 December remains a major mystery.

Mr. Wilkinson: I am afraid that I cannot match the invocation by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) of noble shades or ancestry, or even match his literary allusions. However, I should like to probe the Minister more on one particular adverb: normally.

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The Minister said that the second and third election dates could be affected by changes, notional at this stage, in the timetable for the elections for the Londonborough councils. Should not the election of the mayor and assembly of the Greater London authority have primacy? Should we not set a fixed timetable of a four-year term starting from 2000? Why do we need to change the second and third election dates?

If we are going to change the term, the Minister suggests that it might be extended. Might Londoners not want it to be curtailed, rather than extended? Therefore, I insist again that it is not correct to give the Secretary of State power to alter the dates of the second and third elections on the basis of what remains a hypothetical possibility: changes to the timetable for London borough elections, which Parliament has not yet approved.

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