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Queen's recommendation having been signified--

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52(1)(a),

(1) the payment out of money provided by Parliament of--
(a) any expenditure incurred by a Minister of the Crown or government department in consequence of the Act; and
(b) any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable out of money so provided under any other enactment;
(2) the payment out of the National Loans Fund of sums required by the Secretary of State for making loans to the Post Office company or any of its subsidiaries;
(3) the extinguishment of liabilities of the Post Office company or any of its subsidiaries by order of the Secretary of State;
(4) the payment out of the National Loans Fund or the Consolidated Fund of any increase attributable to the Act in the sums so payable under any other enactment.--[Mr. Clelland.]

Question agreed to.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52(1)(a),

(1) the inclusion in licences granted under the Act of provisions requiring payments to be made;
(2) payments into the Consolidated Fund or the National Loans Fund.--[Mr. Clelland.]

Question agreed to.

15 Feb 2000 : Column 881

London Government

10.28 pm

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): I beg to move,

We are dealing with two consecutive orders. The first is detailed above; the second is the Greater London Authority (Election Expenses) Order 2000. They are related in the matter that we want to pursue: our fundamental objection that neither order provides for free mailings for candidates in the forthcoming London elections. We object to both orders, in order to apply as much pressure as possible on the Government to change their mind. I shall raise specific concerns about expenses during the debate on the second order.

We are joined in our objections by every party except the Labour party. The House will have noted that the motion is in the name of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and that of the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy), the leader of the Liberal Democrats; it is a prayer in joint names.

We are genuinely mystified as to why the Government have got themselves into this situation, finding themselves defending a lonely position in glorious isolation--a position that is in fact indefensible. Tonight's is something of a phoney war, because the real battle will be fought in the other place next week, when these orders come before their Lordships; and the Government, if they maintain their present position, will lose both orders in the upper House. If that happens, it will be the first time the upper House has defeated secondary legislation since 1968, when the issue of Rhodesian sanctions was being debated more than 30 years ago.

The Government cannot possibly sustain their present position. No doubt we shall be accused of wrecking-- I hear the echo from the Labour Bench already--but there is plenty of time to put these matters right on the basis of compromise. We shall be accused of being irresponsible, but we are in fact taking a constructive approach. Last night in the other place, the official Opposition tabled a constructive amendment to the Representation of the People Bill, providing for mandatory free mailings in London elections.

The Government should already be aware of the weakness of their case and the strength of the arguments against it. I hope that the Minister who replies to tonight's debate will not simply read out the rather weak speech delivered by Lord Bassam of Brighton.

No doubt we shall be told that the upper House has no legitimacy to sustain the argument that we are pursuing tonight, but the upper House is doing no more than pursuing what has become known as the Jay doctrine--the doctrine enunciated by Baroness Jay of Paddington, who explained that the upper House is more legitimate as a result of the recent reforms,

it is

    "therefore more effective in playing its part in our bicameral constitution."

Those are her words, not ours, and that is why the upper House feels able to exercise its authority in that way.

15 Feb 2000 : Column 882

Let us first place on record the importance of the mayoral and Greater London Authority elections. These are exceptional elections. There will be 5.1 million voters voting in the election for the mayor of London. There are 350,000 electors per super-constituency, and the only way the candidates can get information to their voters in this extraordinary and unique city is by way of the free mailing. If there is not a free mailing, millions of ordinary voters will have absolutely no direct contact with their constituency candidates.

Our position, as set out in the amendment to the Representation of the People Bill tabled in the other place last night, is that there should be one free mailing for each mayoral candidate and one free mailing for each of the candidates in the super-constituencies. We propose that the mailing of the mayoral candidate and the mailing of a super-constituency candidate should be able to endorse one set of list candidates. We need to amend the spending limits in the second order to reflect the availability of the free mailing.

At the time of the passage of the Bill that became the Greater London Authority Act 1999, there was every expectation that free mailings would be available. At no point was it ever suggested that the precedent set by Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would not be followed.

Since the Royal Assent to the 1999 Act on 11 November there has been ample time for the Government to conduct a proper and open consultation, but they delayed more than a month before writing to the other parties to suggest what their proposals might be. It was on 15 December that the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), wrote to us in solemn tones about the GLA's unique position in the electoral processes of this nation, and told us that the election would be treated in the same way as any other local authority election as far as free mailings were concerned.

Every political party except the Labour party responded in the strongest terms to that consultation. The letter from the Conservative party said:

The absence of free mailing is at the top of that list.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is another strong reason why our case should be followed? We are putting through the House--it was in another place yesterday--the Representation of the People Bill, which is designed to increase voter turnout and to engage more people in elections. That is the Government's declared objective. Yet every piece of evidence suggests that, if we do not allow the electorate to receive literature through a free mailing, voting numbers will go down and the first London election will have a lower turnout. The credibility of campaigns will be under threat both this year and thereafter.

Mr. Jenkin: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is extraordinary that the Minister got up to the strangest antics in Trafalgar square--he let off balloons and tried

15 Feb 2000 : Column 883

to dance a rap for the benefit of the cameras--but will not pursue the most obvious course to increase the turnout in these important elections by allowing voters to receive information directly from the candidates.

We have an extraordinary and unprecedented situation. It is customary for election arrangements to be dealt with as a matter of consensus, but we have finished up with the governing party imposing its will without regard to the views of any other party and in an unfair, undemocratic and dictatorial fashion.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington): Some Labour Members find it regrettable that it should be left to Her Majesty's Opposition to defend democratic processes. None the less, does the hon. Gentleman not agree that many inner London constituencies, in particular, have endemic problems with low turnouts, and that anything that is calculated to make that turnout even lower is not in the best interests of a successful launch for the new Greater London Authority?

Mr. Jenkin: I totally concur with the hon. Lady. That is why it is all the more mystifying that the party that says that it is desperately worried about low turnouts should shoot itself in the foot and discredit one of its own prized constitutional reforms. The Government's actions seem tailor-made to reducing turnout and interest in the election. The process that they have chosen seems designed to create the very apathy that they say they are against.

The orders are particularly unfair to the smaller parties. Higher spending limits with no free mailing--that implies that one has to raise one's own funding for mailshots--can suit only the largest and best financed parties. We know that money is little object for one particular party, but the provision is extremely unfair on smaller and less well funded parties.

Three principle arguments were advanced by Lord Bassam of Brighton last night. First, he said that it will simply be a local election and that the precedent is set by elections to the Greater London council. In fact, that is not the precedent. The GLA will have a completely different electoral system and constituencies are very much larger. However, the key point relates to the mayoral election. There will be 5.1 million voters in a single constituency and they will take part in a single election.

It would be unprecedented if there were no free mailing to enable the mayoral candidates to communicate with those 5.1 million voters. That electorate is substantially larger than the Scottish, Welsh or Northern Ireland electorates. What phoney distinction are the Government trying to make to justify the fact that those electorates are entitled to free mailings while London is not?

If these are local elections, why do the candidates have to make large deposits? We have deposits in parliamentary elections, European elections and elections for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly because those elections are important, so they also have free mailings. The Government cannot have it both ways and demand deposits from candidates without providing free mailings.

The second argument concerns cost. I am afraid that if there is to be a Greater London Authority and a mayor, a certain amount of expense will be involved in making sure

15 Feb 2000 : Column 884

that the elections to the mayoralty and the Assembly are free and fair, and if the Government were not prepared to meet those costs, they should have thought of that before starting the process of reform.

I hope that the Minister will not come up with the ludicrous, scaremongering, Treasury-type costings of between £30 million and £35 million for those free mailings. That is utterly absurd. The Government are living in cloud cuckoo land if they think that such figures are realistic. If free mailings would be such bad value for money for Londoners, why were they such good value in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? That is completely inconsistent.

The Government's third argument against free mailings is becoming known as the curry house argument, because they say that the free mailings would somehow be abused by people who run curry houses, so leaflets trying to sell curries would be circulated rather than election addresses. That, too, is totally ludicrous. First, as was pointed out in the debate in the other place last night, the Post Office has to vet leaflets for election free mailings, and if it is not satisfied that the information is bona fide, the leaflet falls at the first fence.

Secondly, if such abuse is so serious, why has there been no such abuse in parliamentary elections, European elections or Welsh, Scottish or Northern Ireland elections?

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