Previous SectionIndexHome Page

12.30 am

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster): I apologise for my costume. I came straight to the House from the annual dinner of a national organisation. I have remained in the Chamber ever since.

As always, it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane). He made much of the fact that Rotherham is a great distance from London and ignored the fact that Scotland and Wales are, too. We have already discussed the fact that the free mailshot does not appear in legislation relating to those countries.

The hon. Gentleman exaggerated massively the amount of money that the Government themselves think will be spent by each candidate in a free mailshot. Rotherham itself was never part of the Government's constitutional reforms.

Mr. Greenway: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Brooke: No. We are short of time. I apologise to my hon. Friend.

15 Feb 2000 : Column 913

As ever, the Minister for Housing and Planning is sitting next to the Minister for London as his minder; he has done so consistently on other occasions. Towards the end of the Napoleonic wars, the great Napoleon wished to give a marshal's baton to General Lefebvre, one of the great old soldiers of the republic. He sent him to capture a major city in eastern Europe, accompanied by Marshal Oudinot.

Marshal Oudinot had already been wounded in the Napoleonic wars 33 times. Although he was only there with a watching brief, he managed to get wounded during that campaign, too. The Government's apprehensions that they will get wounded in the London elections bring the Minister for Housing and Planning to the House tonight.

The Minister has a powerful historical sense. He knows that, in 1906, the Tory party suffered its largest defeat in a general election this century, until the recent one. He knows that the first sign of the party's recovery was that, for the first time in 18 years since the London county council founded in 1889, it took the LCC the following year, in 1907.

The Minister further knows that, although the Labour Government had a majority of 150 in the general election of 1945, by 1949, although Herbert Morrison had held London for 15 years for Labour, the Conservatives had a majority of 120,000 votes in London at large. They got exactly the same number of seats. The one Liberal who was elected was prepared to vote for the Tories. It was not one of the finest moments in the history of the London Labour party. I have had to listen to a lot about the Greater London council since 1986, but the Labour party insisted on retaining control by fiddling the aldermanic vacancies.

Before the election, the Evening Standard said that the mayoralty of London was the Prime Minister's big idea and that, in that respect, it was going to march with Scotland and Wales. The Minister will remember it. We devoted a whole day to the governance of London on a Friday in June 1997. It was not the equivalent of discussing Rotherham. It was a major part of the Government's constitutional reforms.

I represent an inner-city seat. In the 1983 general election, it had the lowest turnout in the country. On the eve of 1987 general election, I told my agent that we were going to improve. We overtook eight seats. Six were inner-London seats, or on the periphery of inner London. In 1992, we moved up a further eight seats. Again, we overtook inner-city seats. In 1997, we moved up a further eight seats. Again, we overtook inner-city seats.

It is difficult to run elections in inner-city seats, whichever the city--I am not including Rotherham in my remarks. The consequence is that the mailshot is a matter of extreme importance. If the Prime Minister really does have a big idea about London and wants to make the mayoralty a success, he will accept the argument on the mailshot; otherwise, the turnout will be the same as it has been historically. That is, frankly, going to be a loss to everyone. The media attention to which the Minister for London referred is present in a general election, when we again have the problem of getting out the inner-city vote.

The Minister cited three reasons for the Government's position on the matter. He was not on the Committee, so he will not recall--as the Minister for Housing and Planning will--my telling the story of the Polish bishop who arrived in a parish in his diocese and said to the curate, "I am usually accustomed when visiting parishes

15 Feb 2000 : Column 914

to be greeted by the sound of bells. Why am I not greeted by bells?" The curate said, "My lord, there are three reasons. The first is that there are no bells." "Pray go no further," said the bishop.

The Minister for London made the great mistake of going further, so that, having rested his argument on the principle that the Greater London Authority Act 1999 is local government legislation--to which my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) referred--he then produced other reasons why the Government were not going to pursue the matter. In the process, he totally demolished his basic argument--he delivered an Exocet at it--about the local authority.

We know about the Scotland Act 1998 and the Government of Wales Act 1998 and the fact that they contained no provision for a free mailshot. We know, too, that--until the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill--the Government have made up the laws on referendums as they have gone along. In Committee, I accused the Minister for Housing and Planning of making up the Greater London Authority Act 1999 as we went along. I realise that consistency can be castigated as the hobgoblin of little minds, but there is no possible way in which, on the basis of how the Government have conducted their constitutional reform so far, the Minister can rest on the fact that the 1999 Act is local authority legislation and, therefore, that local government arrangements should apply.

Regardless, I say to the Minister, as I say to the House, that democracy is more important than all such issues.

12.37 am

Audrey Wise (Preston): I shall make a very short and plain statement. The debate has been conducted largely as though we were discussing a matter affecting only London, which may seem to be a reasonable conclusion as the order is about elections for the London assembly and the London mayor. However, the matter has a wider significance.

It is not true, as has been well established, that the London elections will be simply local government elections. It is not even true that the major problem is that it is hard work to run elections and difficult to canvass and to deliver. That is not really the essence of the matter at all, as that problem applies anywhere in the country and also in parliamentary elections. I have sat in the Chamber, through the previous debate and this one, asking myself over and over, "What arguments would Labour Members be adducing if we were facing a proposal from the Opposition--were they ever again in a position to do it, which I hope that they will not be--to abolish the free mailshot in parliamentary elections? How would we defend the free mailshot?"

I accept the free mailshot at general elections in my constituency. I would not dream of saying that we have plenty of workers, or that we rely on the fact that we shall have one leaflet delivered by post. We still organise as many people as we possibly can to deliver and to canvass, because one leaflet does not make an election. The issue is not about Labour Members or Liberal Democrat Members or anyone else being short of election workers: it is about providing a reasonable minimum standard so that everyone is able to deliver at least one leaflet. If they can do more than that, it will have to be down to their own efforts. As has already been pointed out, the leaflets and envelopes have to be paid for. It is not a free ride; it is simply a free delivery.

15 Feb 2000 : Column 915

I worry a great deal about the possible implications for parliamentary elections. When my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) was looking for people who might be affected, I was glad that his gaze passed over me and he did not say Preston. I would not have liked to be prayed in aid to that speech.

Never mind clever-clever passion and grandiloquence. When all is said and done, it is a pity that the Opposition have been handed a weapon to use against us. We have been reduced to saying "Yah-boo, you've done worse." Of course they have done worse. They abolished the Greater London council, which was a downright disgrace. However, we are not improving on that by what we are doing tonight. We are giving them a cover so that people can say "Oh well, none of the parties are really very good. None of them are much devoted to democracy." It is a pity to do that.

If we were to add up the cost of the parliamentary mailshots, how would we defend them? If cost is the true issue, it is shameful. I do not know what the true issue is, but the order is a mistake. We should not have handed the Opposition this weapon.

12.41 am

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): We have heard some brave speeches from Labour Members this evening--three of them in defence of basic democratic rights. The Government have been promulgating so-called freedom of information, but the lack of a freepost will deny electors who seek the freedom to know who is standing in an election their right to know what is going on. If the best defence that the Government can put up is the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), it says a great deal about the paucity of their arguments. All that he could do was rail against what he called lazy parties. I have always thought that he was a democrat, but he seems to have failed to take into account the position of vigorous smaller parties, or even good independents. They will find it difficult to get their message across, because they may well be crowded out by the more conventional methods of communication of the media. The electorate have a right to know who is standing in the elections.

When I had to defend difficult wickets as a Minister, I remember falling back on one of two strategies: the first was to laugh at the Opposition and the other was to pray in aid lots of technicalities in the hope of running out of time before having to defend the central issue. The Minister has done that this evening. He has illogically told the House that freeposts are not applicable in ordinary local government elections, and then gone on to tell us about the unique structure of the Greater London Authority and the special nature of the elections. He cannot have his cake and eat it. The electorate will expect a freepost to tell them what is going on. It is incredible that the Labour party is prepared to connive in denying people their basic rights to information.

What has happened in the Department? The civil servants will have given the Minister a brief. Options will have been put before him and factors will have been considered. I have no doubt that many of the arguments about comparability with other forms of election that my right hon. and hon. Friends have made will have been put to the Minister. I see him smiling, so I assume that that is

15 Feb 2000 : Column 916

what happened. However, he turned round, for political reasons--I do not know what they are, because he has not engaged in the debate to tell us this evening--and said to the officials, "No, we are not having a free mailshot, so construct me some arguments that will enable me to make that point." He has not come up with any logical explanation to deal with the coherent arguments put forward by the hon. Members for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) and for Preston (Audrey Wise), and unless he does so, we will know that it was a political decision, and a shoddy one at that.

The decision marks a nasty turn in our electoral processes. We have seen the first manifestation of electoral censorship. The Minister turns his face from that, but we have heard all sorts of fallacious arguments about what sort of candidate will be able to get their message across. The Government's attitude breaks the cross-party consensus that had grown up on the way in which elections should be conducted in the United Kingdom, given an election that caters for such a large and diverse electorate. What will the ethnic minority groups think when the Labour party denies people information in their own languages about the candidates? As they say, "You ain't seen nothing yet."

Next Section

IndexHome Page