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Mr. Jenkin: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hill: No; I will not. I must make progress. I have allowed the hon. Gentleman in once. I have been very generous to other Members--perhaps excessively so--and I know that many in the Chamber await with bated breath the continuation of my remarks.

Sir Robert Smith rose--

Mr. Hill: Our second consideration in opposing free mailshots was the related issue of precedent. GLA elections are classed as local elections and will be run broadly under local election rules. Candidates in local elections do not receive a free mailing, and to allow GLA candidates a free mailing would set a precedent for local elections generally, and for elections of directly elected mayors in particular. That would take the public subsidy of political material to previously unimagined levels.

Thirdly, we took into account the risk of abuse by unscrupulous candidates. For the cost of a £10,000 deposit, a mayoral candidate could get a free Londonwide mailing worth up to £750,000 if sent to each London elector. The risk is real. There has been at least one media report of an individual planning to back a mayoral candidate's campaign as a way of promoting his business. To allow such candidates a free election mailing would make a mockery of the democratic process.

We have heard much from the Opposition parties about their concern--

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): Will the hon. Gentleman allow me?

Mr. Hill: First let me finish the sentence, for the benefit of the consecutive order of my remarks. We have heard much from the Opposition parties about their concern at the lack of a free mailshot, and I suspect that we are about to hear more.

Mr. Wilkinson: Is not the purpose of a deposit to eliminate frivolous candidates, and are not mayoral candidates required to pay a £10,000 deposit? Furthermore, who is the Minister to decide which candidate is frivolous or not? Is that not a wholly fascist notion? Should he not be ashamed of himself?

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham): That is not what the hon. Gentleman said about General Pinochet.

Mr. Hill: Do I hear a cry of "General Pinochet"? I do not want to pursue that particular road.

The concept of the frivolous candidate is common parlance in discussions about electoral practice and electoral procedure. The Government are not making a judgment about the frivolity of candidates, but I have to tell the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) that we know that there is adequate evidence that there are

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such candidates available. [Hon. Members: "Name them."] I will name them. In the aftermath of the recent Kensington and Chelsea by-election, a gentleman by the name of Sam Rosen, who was the sponsor of a candidate in the election who rejoiced in the name of Lisa Lovebuckett, declared that the advantages to his business of sponsoring that candidate had been so enormous that he was perfectly prepared to pay a deposit for the GLA elections so that he could advertise his business. If he is prepared to do that without the benefit of a free mailshot, the scope for such commercial candidatures is endless. It is a serious consideration and a proper one for the Government to take into account.

I am somewhat surprised about the concern that Opposition Members have expressed about free mailshots.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): Will the Minister explain whether his comments will apply to future parliamentary elections?

Mr. Hill: To the extent that there is already the well-established convention of deposits, the practices already apply. We do not have to think about the future; that is current reality. However, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that thought.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Hill: No, for the sake of other hon. Members who wish to participate in the debate, I need to make progress.

Free mailshots are not a matter for the election expenses order, and primary legislation would be needed to provide mailshots at the public expense in such elections. We did not include provision for free mailshots in the Greater London Authority Act 1999 for the reasons that I have just described. The Act was scrutinised at length both in this House and in the other place. Hon Members in the opposition parties had ample opportunity to table amendments to provide for free mailshots, but they did not. If this were really an issue of such great concern, that would have been sheer political incompetence.

I understand the concern raised that the lack of free mailing could favour the richer parties. That is precisely why we have adjusted the election expenses limit downwards by a substantial amount to help level the playing field. That was done to help the smaller parties and independent candidates, and was a direct response to points made to us in the consultation. The limits will allow candidates and parties to put their message across to the electorate. They will allow parties with both a mayoral candidate and a Londonwide list, or independent candidates who stand both for mayor and as a Londonwide assembly member, to send a mailshot to every household in London if they wish.

I reject the Conservative party's accusation that the proposal is ballot rigging. That is an absurd suggestion. I have made it quite clear why there will not be free mailshots. For an outlay of £10,000, a mayoral candidate could get a benefit worth up to £750,000: they would be queueing up at the door with their nomination papers and pound notes in their hands. The cost to the public purse would be open-ended and could add up to a sum equivalent to the first-year budget for the GLA itself--

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£35 million. I do not think that spending public money on this scale on campaigning would be a priority for Londoners or, indeed, taxpayers elsewhere.

Then there is the scope for abuse. The GLA is all about reconnecting people with democracy at a local level. Frankly, a long list of frivolous, publicity-seeking candidates with campaigns subsidised by the taxpayer would simply alienate Londoners, and would risk damaging the public's perception of the new authority before it has even started. Finally, elections to the GLA are local elections that will be run under local rules that do not include a free mailing paid for by the Exchequer.

The limits provide for GLA elections to be as fair as possible while allowing candidates and parties the freedom to put their message across to the electorate. They take account of the GLA's unique structure and voting systems, and will allow parties with a mayoral candidate and Londonwide list to pay for a mailing to each London household.

11.59 pm

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): Rarely can the House have seen a Minister of the Crown treat matters of democracy and fairness with such contempt. I wish that the Minister could have sat here and seen the faces of his hon. Friends, because they told the true story of the mess that they think he is making. He has been deliberately churlish and obtuse in his denial of the strength of the arguments that hon. Members from both sides of the House have presented.

The Minister's behaviour is like that of a spoilt child who does not want anybody else to play with his toys. That is the basis on which he has conducted consultation. He has dictated his terms on the democratic process instead of genuinely listening to the case put before him. He might tonight command the votes of the House, but he does not command the hearts of Members who believe in real democracy.

The hon. Gentleman said the matter should have been raised during the passage of the Greater London Authority Act 1999, and that it was a matter of high political incompetence that amendments on the issue were not tabled then. I invite him to consider the Scotland Act 1998 and the Government of Wales Act 1998. I sat through all the proceedings on those Bills on the Floor of the House, but we never even discussed free mailings. It was taken as read that there would be free mailings. It is ludicrous to suggest that there are free mailings in elections at an important point of constitutional reform only if the Opposition raise the matter.

The first the opposition parties knew about there being no free mailings in the London elections was when the Minister's letter of consultation, dated 15 December, landed on our desks. We were required to do all the work in response to that letter in the run-up to Christmas. The Minister now generously describes that as consultation for which we should be unctuously grateful. It was said in the previous debate that there is no precedent for such matters being tackled without proper consensus. The hon. Gentleman has made the mistake of reading out the speech that was read out by Lord Bassam in the Upper House last night. That fully explains the hon. Gentleman's dusty brush-off by some of his colleagues tonight.

The Minister mentioned General Pinochet, who held a referendum and sought consensus on Chile's transition to democracy. General Pinochet and the hon. Gentleman are

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ships that pass in the night: while General Pinochet brought Chile back to democracy, the hon. Gentleman is taking London away from democracy.

Mr. Banks: I do not know how old the hon. Gentleman was, or where he was, when his father, then the Secretary of State for the Environment, now a noble Lord, was abolishing the Greater London council, and we were on the other side of the House asking for a referendum that he never gave us. How dare the hon. Gentleman stand up and talk about referendums in the same breath as the fascist Pinochet?

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