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The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford): Because of the size of the electorate.

Mr. Jenkin: But the size of European constituencies is considerable, and the list mailings for the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland elections covered large electorates. The hon. Gentleman is living on a different planet. He is making it up because he is in a corner and does not know what else to say.

In any case, the curry house argument does not stand up because the curry house would have to print the leaflets, pay the deposit and pay for the envelopes, which would be a considerable outlay. A free mailing is not a free ride, as the hon. Gentleman seems to think, but it gives small parties a chance to communicate with electors who would not otherwise receive a thing. There are vast swathes of London where, to the shame of us all, there is precious little political activity and no large parties are able to canvass actively. The electorate consists of many single households, many people who are ex-directory and many people who are out at all hours and who would never have direct contact with the representatives of any of the candidates.

It is also an exaggeration to suggest that there might be a large number of mayoral candidates--it was mentioned in the upper House that there might be 20 candidates--all using the free post facility.

The purpose of this debate is to send the Government a strong, clear signal. As I said earlier, there is a joint prayer from the two main opposition parties in the House against the Government's position. All the other, smaller parties support our action. Ours is not a wrecking manoeuvre; we have set out constructive proposals in the other place. Tonight's debate is a dress rehearsal for what will happen in the upper House if the Government do not see sense. The Government will lose the vote in the upper House, not because of the Conservatives, but because they will be opposed by peers of all parties represented there.

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Some of their colleagues in the upper House and in House of Commons are extremely unhappy with the Government's decision.

To threaten the electoral process is not the right way forward. All we ask is for dialogue, compromise, consensus and reason--all of which are sadly lacking at present. We could ascribe to the Government all sorts of motives for their behaviour, but that is not our purpose in pursuing the matter tonight. We want a reasonable solution. We want the orders ultimately to obtain consent, so that the elections can proceed in an orderly manner. It is in the Government's gift to ensure that that happens.

10.46 pm

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington): The hour is late, but as a London Member of Parliament I would be remiss in my responsibilities to my constituents if I did not put the interests of London electors on the record this evening. For nearly 20 years, I have been, first, a local government councillor and now a Member of Parliament for an inner London constituency. I know only too well the problems with election turnout in inner cities--the problems with getting people out to vote and making them aware of the real issues on which elections are fought.

We have created a brand new political structure; we face the first ever election for a mayor for London. It is astonishing to some of us that the Government seriously propose not to have a free post in the election. It might technically be just another local authority election, but Ministers know full well that it is not the same. The number of people involved and the significance of the mayoralty mean that it is more than a local authority election. Ministers cannot get away with that argument.

If the House of Lords knocks the issue back to the Commons, Ministers should not argue that it is just another example of the peers versus the people. In fact, it will be the Government versus the people. It cannot be in the interests of my constituents or of the other electors of London that candidates should have no access to free mailing. Many of my constituents do not read a daily newspaper or watch "Newsnight" and other political programmes. They expect to receive their mailshot from the political parties--indeed, they look forward to it, because it enables them to learn about the issues.

The proposal is ill thought out and the justifications that Ministers have offered do not stand up to examination. The idea that the mailshot can be used to publicise hairdressers and restaurants is utterly absurd. For the sake of short-term advantage, Ministers appear willing to play fast and loose with my constituents' access to information. I shall support the Government in the Lobby tonight, but I was anxious to put my remarks on the record. Members of the other place should be in no doubt that, even at this late stage, many London Members of Parliament and thousands of London electors are looking to the Government to change their mind.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): Will the hon. Lady tell me what short-term advantage she thinks Ministers will gain from the proposal?

Ms Abbott: The question of currying favour with the Treasury is always alive in the eyes of Ministers. However, let me put a wholly speculative proposition to

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the House: let us imagine that there was an independent candidate who had led in the polls for the past two years; and let us imagine that the Government were frightened that that independent would attempt to run, albeit without the benefit of the funds available to major parties. It would be extremely convenient for the Government if that independent candidate were deprived of a free post and had to raise the money from his own sources--but that is a wholly speculative suggestion and I shall not detain the House by exploring it.

We are considering an important issue: the London electorate's right to gain access to information about the mayoralty. To put it as politely as I can, every single aspect of the mayoral campaign, from the original decision to go for a directly elected mayor onwards, has not been managed as well as it might have been and has tended to discredit the Government. It is with great regret that I say that to the House tonight.

10.51 pm

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) put her finger on it when she exposed the Government's motivation for their treatment of the issue of free mailing. I hope that the hon. Lady will not support the Government in the Lobby, and that she will at least abstain to send a signal to some of her colleagues on the Labour Benches in another place. Many of them share her anxieties.

The Government's problem stems from their approach to the mayor and the Greater London Authority. From the beginning, they have been confused about whether the new form of government was regional, city or local government. The Government claim tonight that it is local government and that therefore there is no need for free mailing. However, that has not always been the Government's position. On Second Reading of the Greater London Authority Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) asked the Deputy Prime Minister:

The Deputy Prime Minister gave a clear reply in his characteristic style:

    "The proposed authority is not similar to any local government authority as we know it. It will be a new type of city government, with a city executive and an elected mayor . . . Therefore, it is fair to say that it is not the normal local government structure."--[Official Report, 14 December 1998; Vol. 322, c. 624.]

The Deputy Prime Minister said that the proposed authority was not a form of local government.

Mr. Raynsford: It is city government.

Mr. Davey: If the Government believe that, they should establish a new system of rules for electing city governments. As was said yesterday in another place, anxiety exists that, if other cities get mayors and hold elections, the expense may grow. Surely the way round that is to produce a new set of election rules and a new, specially designed process for city government. The Government should not try to create a hybrid form. That has got them into their mess.

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The Minister's comments in Committee on amendments that paved the way for the statutory instrument show that the Government are in a mess. He said:

In Committee, the Minister admitted that the GLA was not like local government and that the election rules had to be amended.

Mr. Jenkin: Scotland has a Parliament and Wales and Northern Ireland have Assemblies. Are not the London elections akin to national or regional elections, not local government elections, and should not London be treated with the same respect?

Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The Government have been schizophrenic about whether the authority constitutes local or regional government. Consequently, they have not been able to deal with the matter consistently. That is principally why we are here tonight, although there are other reasons, to which the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington referred.

As the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) said, the difference between the GLA and local elections lies in the rules, which are set out in the statutory instrument. There are significant differences between the rules for the GLA and local elections in terms of personal expense limits and deposits. If GLA elections are so similar to local elections, why do we need the order and 100 pages of new rules? The Government's argument stands no test, as the size of the electorate shows: is the Minister suggesting that one of more than 5 million is similar to that of an ordinary council ward? That is patent nonsense.

We must return to why the free post was introduced by the Labour party by Act of Parliament in 1948. It rightly saw the need for equality in the way in which people and parties fought elections to ensure that candidates had a fair crack of the whip. In Committee, the Minister for Housing and Planning said:

If that was his intention, why is he not proposing a free post tonight? That is clearly the way to ensure equality between candidates, and he is hoist by his own petard.

As the hon. Member for North Essex said, the free post is needed more than ever in London so that candidates can communicate with their electorate, because many people live in blocks of flats and residential developments with entry phones and locked gates. They are difficult to enter. Liberal Democrat Members are often teased for delivering the "Focus" newsletter around their constituencies, but I can vouch for the fact that it is difficult for anyone who is not a Post Office official to gain access to many houses in my constituency. It is important that the candidates have that chance and surely that need is even greater in this election.

The electorate are likely to be relatively confused about what is going on as the GLA is wholly new and not at all like the Greater London council, as Ministers have argued

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many times, and there will be three new electoral systems. If the voters need information about any election, surely it is this one, and that information would enable them to understand what on earth is going on. However, the Minister is not prepared to allow them to have it and that is an absolute and utter disgrace.

Spurious arguments were made in the other place last night in defence of the Government's position, but the hon. Member for North Essex demolished them and I do not intend to cover the same ground. However, it was said that the issue of free mailing was not raised in Committee. That is factually incorrect. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) questioned the Minister for Housing and Planning:

The Minister replied:

    "The right hon. Gentleman raised the different issue of whether a free mailshot should apply, as in parliamentary elections, or whether it should not, as in local government elections. Perhaps he has raised one more issue."--[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 28 January 1999; c. 79.]

What sort of response is that? It shows that he was aware of the issue as he answered the question, but he was clearly hiding and not coming forward.

As one reads the Committee Hansard with the benefit of hindsight, it becomes increasingly evident that Ministers always intended not to provide a free post, but did not have the guts to tell us. I questioned the Minister on that very issue:

His article said that Ministers sent a memorandum to the Neill committee about that. I went on:

    "It is not good enough for Ministers not to take this opportunity to clarify their thoughts and give us all an indication of when and how they will deal with the specific difficulty that arises from this unique election process."--[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 28 January 1999; c. 91.]

In other words, the issue was fully raised and Ministers had the chance to explain their position, and they did not. Again, the arguments put forward in the debate last night in the other place are shown to be inadequate.

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