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Mr. Jeff Rooker): The answer is simple: our record speaks volumes, as the whole of the past hour has shown. More than 2 million of the poorest pensioners in this country are now at least £15 a week or £800 a year better off in real terms. People on the basic minimum income guarantee receive £78.45 this week. Next week, their income will go up to £92.15.
Mr. Rooker: As my hon. Friend knows, there will be further increases as the transition to pension credit is effected. That is why there has been an increase in the basic state pension this year that is over and above both the earnings link and the prices link. In addition, we are in any event committed to raising the minimum income guarantee in line with earnings.
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the deferral of the local government elections, which were due to take place next month.
On 3 May, elections for 34 English county councils and 11 English unitary authorities were scheduled, and slightly less than a fortnight later, on Wednesday 16 May, elections for 26 district councils in Northern Ireland were also due. However, the House will be aware of the considerable scale of representations that we have received to defer those elections because of foot and mouth disease. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has now made clear, we have listened very carefully to those representations.
We judge that, in terms of practical arrangements, polling in May would be possible and would produce fair results. Following changes to the law brought into force on 16 February, postal votes in England and Wales are now available on demand to any voter. With a handful of exceptions, schools--in which many polling stations are sited--have remained open and operational in all foot and mouth disease areas. Moreover, as all of us are aware, the form of election campaigns has changed over the years: for example, telephone canvassing is now a key way in which voters in rural and urban areas are contacted by candidates and political parties.
We have also taken careful note of the impact on tourism and the message that any lengthy deferral might send out. On the other side of the equation, however, is the need for national and, in some areas, local politicians to be focused on the fight against foot and mouth disease as the necessary machinery to deal with any eventuality is put in place; and the feelings and sensitivities of people in the communities most severely affected by that dreadful disease.
Taking account of those considerations, we have decided that these local elections should be deferred for a short period: in the case of England and Wales, for five weeks, from 3 May to Thursday 7 June; and in the case of Northern Ireland, for three weeks, from 16 May to 7 June also. Some district and borough council by-elections are due on 3 May and others could be held on each Thursday thereafter before 7 June. In the circumstances, the Government believe it will be best if all by-elections in that period are also postponed until 7 June. In the time scale, however, it is not practical to defer by-elections that are due before 3 May.
A Bill to ask the House and the other place to give effect to those deferrals will be introduced as soon as possible. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will make a statement immediately after this one about the effect on the House's business. As preparations for local elections on 3 May in England and Wales and 16 May in Northern Ireland will have to continue until and unless legislation for their deferral receives Royal Assent, it is plainly in everyone's interest that the legislation should be passed as quickly as possible. There are a number of detailed consequential matters which will have to be dealt with in the legislation. I will therefore make arrangements for the Opposition parties to have an outline of the draft legislation later today.
The House will be aware that the cost of administering local elections falls on the local authorities concerned. In respect of the elections that were due to take place in May, local authorities have already incurred expenditure and will be obliged to go on incurring such expenditure unless and until the new Bill receives Royal Assent. We shall accordingly take powers in the Bill to compensate local authorities for expenditure legitimately and unavoidably incurred. Although nominations for the elections due on 3 May do not close until tomorrow--and those for Northern Ireland do not close until later this month--some candidates may have incurred additional costs because of the deferral. They should be relatively small, but to cover them the maximum limit on candidates' expenses will be increased in the Bill by 50 per cent. The Bill will also provide that candidates validly nominated for elections due on 3 May will not have to resubmit their nomination papers.
Delaying elections is not a step ever to be taken lightly. Nevertheless, I hope that the House will agree with me that a relatively short postponement of the kind that I have set out is the appropriate response in the circumstances.
Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): May I thank the Home Secretary for his usual courtesy in providing me with a copy of his statement in advance? Conservative Members are glad about the Government's belated recognition that there really is a crisis in this country, which is affecting the countryside and farmers badly, and that local elections would have been inappropriate in those circumstances. However, it is unfortunate that the Government decided not to consult the Opposition at all prior to making their decision on an important constitutional matter. Members will be aware of the tradition that, when important constitutional matters are involved, there should be contact with the Opposition. It is regrettable that that did not happen. But, of course, we know that even Cabinet Ministers were unaware of what the Prime Minister and his spin doctors were thinking.
Are not today's developments yet another chapter in the catalogue of dithering and delay that has characterised the Government's handling of the foot and mouth crisis? It was we who called for compensation for farmers who suffered irrecoverable losses, and it took the Government two weeks to announce it. It was we who called for the Government to make use of the Army, and it took them another nine days even to begin deploying troops. It was we who called for rate relief for rural businesses, and it took the Government a week to decide to undertake that. It was we who called for legislation to allow postponement of the local elections two weeks before the legal timetable for those elections had commenced. At the time the Leader of the House said that such a move would be "catastrophically wrong". The Prime Minister's official spokesman said:
If the foot and mouth outbreak is the reason for putting the elections off, how can the Government work to such an arbitrary date? What will the Government do if the crisis continues, and is not resolved at that time? What criteria will the Prime Minister use to determine whether to go ahead then--or is that date written in tablets of stone? We need answers to those important questions.
The Prime Minister said this morning that it was necessary to put in place immediate short and long-term strategies to ensure eradication of the disease. The Prime Minister has shown no leadership. He said that while the crisis was still going on, it would not be appropriate to hold the elections. Is it not entirely consistent with the principle of delaying those elections that while the crisis remains unresolved, until and possibly beyond 7 June, the argument stands for focusing on combating the disease rather than on the elections?
Will the Home Secretary therefore say clearly today whether it is planned that those elections will go ahead regardless of the progress and the circumstances of the current crisis--despite the fact that the Prime Minister said this morning that it would be better to focus on the fight against foot and mouth, and that one of his key criteria for deciding in favour of postponement was the feeling in local communities?
Will the right hon. Gentleman also accept that the Prime Minister was wrong to say that there were no practical impediments in the way of having the local elections on 3 May? Does he realise that areas such as Devon and Cumbria, which are particularly badly affected--[Interruption.]
Miss Widdecombe: No wonder Labour Members do not want to hear these important questions. [Interruption.] No wonder they do not want to be challenged on the profoundly inadequate handling of a national crisis.
Will the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, who have both claimed that there are no practical impediments, recognise that in Devon and Cumbria, which are particularly badly affected, there are many candidates who are farmers? How are they supposed to press their candidature if they cannot move about?
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is a clear case for flexibility in the proposed legislation, and that to fix a date of 7 June in the Bill would be both inappropriate and premature? Does he accept that the legislation should be framed around taking the necessary powers to set a new date, because it is clear that it would not be responsible to fix the date now? Might it not, indeed, be right for local elections in some areas that have been particularly affected to be delayed longer than the one month that the legislation would allow--[Interruption.]
I am afraid that the attitude on the Government Benches shows how seriously Labour Members do not take what is going on in the countryside, and how little respect they have for the people who are asking these questions--the people who are affected.
As the Home Secretary will appreciate, his announcement raises several extremely important legal and practical issues. What about the closing of nominations for the local elections, which is due to take place at midday tomorrow? I understand that before the right hon. Gentleman's statement, the Home Office had been telling local authorities that the deadline would be extended into May. Do the Government intend that the deadline should be
Will the right hon. Gentleman say something about literature printed in good faith by candidates who believed the Government's previous firm assurances that the elections would take place on 3 May? Will those candidates be compensated for their expenditure on that literature--[Interruption.]