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Mr. Bermingham: Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that in any local government election at whatever level--whether for mayors in Liverpool or Birmingham or generally--there should be a free mailshot? If he is, I will understand his argument.

Mr. Jack: My argument addresses a unique occasion in our democratic process--the first election of a mayor for London. The Minister said that the election had a unique structure, and that is why I argue that candidates should have a free mailshot. The size, scale and diversity of London demand that that type of communication be made available, and the Government have advanced fallacious cost information to justify their position. What price democracy? Tonight, if the Government have their way, electoral censorship will arrive in this country and our democratic processes will be the worse for it.

12.47 am

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I wish to add a brief word in support of the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke), and on behalf of those constituencies, whatever their party allegiance, that traditionally have very low turnouts. It is unarguable that it will be impossible to reach all the electors in any of the constituencies unless there is a free mailshot. I say to the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), who knows as much about Europe as about Rotherham, that the largest European constituencies have always had a free mailshot in elections, so that every elector can have the facts.

People often complain that we only take an interest in them at election time. They will get their polling card, but if they get no literature, what will that do to restore the political process? What will it do to make people feel engaged? What will it do to make people feel included? What will that do to make politics more valued? It will

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do nothing. All it will do is ensure that those who feel marginalised and excluded already feel even more alienated from the political process.

If nothing else will persuade the Government, I repeat the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) asked earlier. The Government have to come up with an alternative, because if they persist in their approach, they will be defeated. That is a solution that they do not want--and neither do we, because we want the election to go ahead.

There is a debate in the Labour party about Labour re-engaging with its heartland. At the last election, the majority of people in London voted Labour. The largest number of local authorities in London are Labour controlled. It will be to traditional Labour voters that the Government do the greatest disservice.

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

Mr. Hughes: No, I will not. Many of those traditional Labour voters will be disengaged; many of them will not receive communication, and many of them will feel that their Government have let them down.

I join colleagues from all parts of the country and both sides of the House in saying that the Government have about seven days in which to think again. If they do not, they will be making a terrible political mistake.

12.50 am

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South): The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) refused to give way to me. If he had, I would have asked him a very simple question--the same question that I asked the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) a short while ago. If we are to have a referendum, and if we are to have freepost, should we not have it in all elections? Why did the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey not give way and answer that question? It is because he does not want to know the answer, which is that if we do it for one election, we must do it for every election. It must be as simple as that. [Interruption.] Wrong. I am saying that if we do it for London, we have to do it for Liverpool, Birmingham, and everywhere else.

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central): Will my hon. Friend accept that London has local elections? They are for the boroughs. This is a regional election involving 5 million people--the electorate is larger than that of Scotland and Wales. This is not a local election, but a regional election, and of course there should be free post.

Mr. Bermingham: That is exactly why I am saying that there should be free distribution at elections. We cannot distinguish between elections. That is why I asked the question of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey. It is as simple as that. If we differentiate one election and another, where the heck do we go?

12.52 am

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham): I have been fascinated in both debates about the confusion that appears to be emerging at the heart of the new Greater London assembly. Having a mayor and assembly was the one clear policy for London that we thought the Labour

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Government were introducing. We now appear to be challenging the role of the mayor and the assembly. On the one hand, the Minister insists on maintaining that this is a local government election; on the other, he is introducing to that election a system of deposits that is alien to local government elections.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) made exactly the point that I wish to make, which is that London is a region. It is defined as a region by the Greater London Authority Act 1999, and the London development agency is, by any definition, a function of regional government. If we are talking about regional government, we have to be talking about an organisation that is not a local government organisation.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I wonder whether the hon. Lady can help me on a point made by the Minister. He suggested that if there was a free post for the whole of London, frivolous candidates or commercial interests would flood Londoners' post boxes with leaflets in support of their businesses. The hon. Lady represents a London constituency. Was she aware of that happening during the European elections, when similar circumstances prevailed in that London was treated as a region and there was a free post?

Mrs. Lait: The hon. Gentleman has picked up on another point that I was going to make. During my by-election, when one expects frivolous candidates, there were none, apart from the British National party. Therefore, I suggest that the idea that there are always frivolous candidates, and that the organisation of these expenses is designed to eliminate them, is a fantasy to bolster Ministers' confused arguments. I can understand their confusion. Last Saturday, I campaigned with our prospective candidate for the assembly in a nice, respectable, Conservative part of Beckenham--[Interruption.] The Minister would do well to listen to this. Reaction in that area suggested that people would vote for Steve Norris or, in fewer numbers, for--whisper his name--the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone). Not a single person mentioned the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) or the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson).

When I told people that I was accompanying their prospective assembly candidate, the usual reaction was, "What's the assembly?" If there is any strong argument for free post, the understandable ignorance of the London electorate about the assembly's existence is it. There is no evidence that ordinary voters even know that there will be an assembly. I hope that the Government do not decide to solve that problem by themselves advertising the assembly. That would be an even greater travesty of democracy. We need to allow all prospective candidates for the assembly to benefit from a mailshot, just as the candidates for mayor should.

Mr. Casale: Did the hon. Lady remind her constituents on the doorstep that her party is profoundly antagonistic towards London government? Did she tell them that her party abolished the Greater London council and did not want these elections to happen? In opposing the motion, does she not intend to bring about a situation in which we have no election at all to the London authority?

Mrs. Lait: If I understand the hon. Gentleman correctly, he is suggesting that a mailshot would put

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people off voting for the assembly. We have all argued that the opposite would be the case. The Minister would be rash to ignore the arguments advanced in favour of democracy for all Londoners and for residents of all the other cities in which the Government propose to introduce mayors. Candidates for mayors in other cities will have huge fund-raising requirements if they are to stand. In some less-well-off areas, I can see people being deterred from standing by the sums that will have to be raised if the electorate is to be reached. I beg the Government to add to their proposals for mayors of other cities the implications of what they are doing in Greater London.

Mr. Greenway: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way as it means that I shall not need to detain the House with a speech. Her last point is extremely strong. The hon. Member for Preston (Audrey Wise) said that this matter goes wider than London. Does my hon. Friend agree that if we are to have regional assemblies, which many Opposition Members do not want, there should surely be free postal delivery in Yorkshire, the south-west and the west midlands, just as there was in Scotland and Wales?

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