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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Perhaps we should get back to the order before us.

Mr. Jenkin: I am very happy to get back to the order.

What we managed to do was get rid of the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) and that was doing London a favour at the time.

Mr. Banks: I am still here, but the hon. Gentleman's father is not.

Mr. Jenkin: The hon. Gentleman should take a tablet and lie down in a dark room. He would feel much better.

As the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) pointed out, the Minister, in his letter of 15 December about the consultation for the proposals, talked at length about the comparability of these elections with Westminster, European, Scottish and Welsh elections.

In his letter, the Minister refers to the necessity of setting fair and reasonable expenditure limits on candidates,

Even though he has adjusted some of the spending limits, those who have substantial resources will still have a significant advantage over those who do not, and the absence of free mailing compounds that advantage in spades. The letter continues:

    "We believe that a higher limit could encourage unscrupulous candidates or parties to spend excessively in seeking votes, putting other candidates with more limited means at a disadvantage."

Yet by maintaining higher spending limits instead of allowing free mailing to which voters think candidates should be entitled, the Minister is allowing unscrupulous candidates or parties to spend excessive sums chasing votes, thereby putting candidates with more limited means at a disadvantage. The most extraordinary feature of the letter of consultation is that it sets out the very disadvantages of the scheme that the Minister has finally proposed to the House, all on his own, without a single ounce of support from any other political party that will participate in the elections.

The reason why the Minister has put himself in that position is a mystery. There are only two possible explanations. The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) alluded to one: the "stop Ken" campaign, bringing party factionalism into the very conduct and fairness of our democracy. Never has there been such an abuse of the responsibilities of office in the face of all the opposition parties. The other explanation, which I believe contains some truth, is that the Minister

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and his Department have become caught between a rock and a hard place: the rock is the principle of democracy, which will be upheld by the other place when it votes on the orders next week; the hard place is the Treasury.

If the sort of arguments that have been deployed by the Minister this evening--the ridiculous, extreme, reductio ad absurdum arguments about excessive cost and the potential for abuse--apply to the London elections, they must apply to parliamentary elections. Whatever abuses may or may not occur in parliamentary elections, we tolerate them because we believe that democracy, openness and direct contact with voters are more important. In any case, were such abuses to occur, they could be dealt with by other legislative means--one of my colleagues has pointed out that we suspended an entire Assembly in 24 hours of legislating, so it cannot be beyond the wit of man to devise legislative means to provide free mailing for mayoral candidates and constituency candidates in the forthcoming London elections.

Mr. Roger Casale (Wimbledon): I am following the hon. Gentleman's argument closely. However, I have to tell him that his democratic arguments are somewhat undermined by his calling in aid the unelected House of Lords, the Conservatives' abolition of the GLC and even General Pinochet.

Mr. Jenkin: The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that the Labour Leader of the House of Lords, Baroness Jay, made clear her belief that the Upper House now has the legitimacy needed to deal with such matters. If she believes that the reforms forced through by the Labour party have given the upper House the necessary authority, it ill behoves the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Mr. Casale) to say that the other place should not interfere. According to his own lights, the Labour Government have enhanced the credentials of the Upper House.

Mr. Greenway: My hon. Friend might care to speculate on a point that I wanted to raise with the Minister but he would not give way. There is consensus between the Home Secretary, the House and the other place on the Representation of the People Bill, which will encourage voter participation in elections--yet the order does the opposite. Denying a free mailshot to all mayoral candidates will reduce participation in the mayoral elections.

Mr. Jenkin: My hon. Friend is right. The inconsistency in the Government's position is glaring, but it is for them, not me, to explain it. An amendment was discussed in the Upper House during proceedings on the Representation of the People Bill. It set out the exact way in which we want free mailings to be tackled. The Government will not only lose the orders next week, but if they want the amendment to be put to the vote on Report, they will also lose that vote.

The Government's position is inexplicable because it is impossible to understand how they can win. Ministers should return to their offices tomorrow morning, pick up the telephone and start organising a meeting so that we can sort out the problem in a proper, open, democratic and consensual fashion.

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12.11 am

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington): I spoke in the earlier debate on related matters, so I wish to confine my remarks to the arguments that Ministers presented time and again tonight. They say that they will not allow a free mailshot because we are considering a local authority election, which is like any other. I shall give three reasons why it is not simply a local authority election.

First, the electorate numbers more than 5 million people. Secondly, as my hon. Friend the Minister knows, in most local elections in urban areas it is possible to organise the delivery of a mailshot through volunteer labour--I know that because I have worked in every local and general election since 1978. It will be almost impossible to organise the delivery of a mailshot through volunteer labour in Greater London.

Thirdly, in London many people live in houses and flats with entry phones and there are many houses in multiple occupation. Even if we were able to mobilise a co-ordinated army to cover London from Hillingdon to Croydon, many people would not receive their election address without the provision of a free mailshot.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Ms Abbott: I am afraid not; it is late and my arguments address a specific point.

We all appreciate the energy with which the Minister has prosecuted the Government's case tonight. However, it is not intellectually sustainable to claim that the election is simply a local authority election like any other.

12.13 am

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): Most of the Government's fairly weak arguments have been demolished in our two debates. I want to focus on one specific argument. The Government claim that the issue that we are discussing was not raised in Committee. Earlier, I quoted exchanges from our Committee proceedings which proved that the issue was debated then.

The Government said that they would consult widely to gain consensus on election limits. If the Minister is in doubt about that, I shall quote again an exchange that he and I had in Committee on 28 January 1999. I said:

The Minister replied:

    "I have already given the Committee an absolute assurance that we will consult before we come forward with proposals. I have undertaken that those consultations will include both the hon. Gentleman's party and the principal Opposition party."--[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 28 January 1999; c. 84.]

The Committee considered the issue in that spirit, so does the Minister honestly think that sending a letter to various people on 15 December with a closing date of 4 January represents the consultations that he assured the Committee he would provide? If he does, that is nonsense and no one will believe him. It is an act of bad faith and if that is how the Government approach consultations on running elections in the capital city, the Minister should

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hang his head in shame. We have a new electoral system, so a full and proper consultation on the rules and election expenses was required, but it took place during the Christmas and millennium celebrations. That is an absolute outrage.

Many people answered the consultation invitation and we only just managed to submit our replies. The Minister has already admitted that no one suggested that there should not be a mailshot, so taking this approach to the free post suggests that the Government have not listened to anybody. He says that expense limits have been reduced in line with Liberal Democrat proposals--he is right and we welcome that--but he failed to say that our reply linked reducing the high expenditure limits to the provision of a free mailshot. As usual, he tries to have his cake and eat it. Our submission states:

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