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Mr. Speaker: Order. The House must come to order.

Miss Widdecombe: The more questions we ask, the more desperate Labour Members become. All over this country, people representing all the major parties will be disgusted by the fact that these questions are being treated as trivial.

I welcome the decision to increase candidates' expenditure limits, but will the right hon. Gentleman consider whether a 50 per cent. increase is enough where candidates may have had to destroy all their election literature? I also welcome the decision to reimburse local councils that have incurred, or will incur, unavoidable expenditure because of the postponement.

Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether there will be further special arrangements for postal voting, and especially for the delivery of election addresses, in areas that are particularly badly affected by the foot and mouth crisis? Will he comment on the legal issues resulting from the legal requirement for councils to hold annual meetings in April and May, and for the election of mayors and the commencement of new budgets in that time?

Will the right hon. Gentleman admit that these are important issues which could and should have been resolved much earlier, and that the legislation should have been produced before 26 March, as we said? Will he also comment on the rolling register, and on the extension of the deadline previously set at 12 March?

Finally--[Hon. Members: "Too long."] Too long because too much has been unattended to. If the Home Secretary had covered these matters in his statement, I would not have to ask him obvious questions now. Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on the disgraceful way in which the decision was announced? Will he confirm that Labour party spin doctors were authorised to leak the announcement to the press on Friday evening? Perhaps he could tell us whether the Prime Minister's official spokesman was involved in that.

Will the right hon. Gentleman also confirm that the Cabinet was kept in the dark about the Prime Minister's change of mind--so much so that the Culture Secretary embarrassed himself and the Government by making contradictory statements about the matter within a couple of hours on Saturday morning? Does the Home Secretary regret that? Did he become aware of the decision before or after the press were told? The Government have dithered and delayed on the issue for the past two weeks. Their actions to date will have inspired no confidence among the public in their ability to handle the crisis.

Mr. Straw: I will, as ever, seek to answer as many of the right hon. Lady's questions as possible and as the time allows. However, you will forgive me, Mr. Speaker, if I observe that the right hon. Lady has only one gear--

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a very high gear. She invited us all to accept that we were speaking of a national crisis, then treated us to a party political rant, with posturing and invective.

The gravamen of the right hon. Lady's remarks was whether it would not be better to defer the elections indefinitely. We all understand that there are some on the Conservative Benches who would like to see the local elections and any general election deferred through this year and well past May 2002. However, there are significant practical reasons why it would not be sensible to delay the unitary and county council elections beyond the date in June or thereabouts. [Interruption.] I will explain why, if right hon. and hon. Members will hear me out. It is extremely important.

If we were to defer the elections indefinitely, we would have to do one of two things. We would also have to defer by-elections indefinitely as well. At each four-year cycle of any council, about a quarter of all candidates retire or resign. Most of those, we anticipate, will be willing to serve for a further three, four or, as it happens, five weeks. As they have made their own decision to retire or, in many cases, among all three parties, have been deselected, I do not believe that almost any of them could or would be willing to be nominated for those vacancies. The effect of deferring the elections indefinitely and prohibiting by-elections meanwhile--

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): That is not true.

Mr. Straw: It is absolutely true. Hon. Members may shake their heads, but the effect would be to leave those areas unrepresented, and also to secure a situation in which, by chance or by death, control of those councils changed. The alternative is not to defer by-elections, but that would mean ending up with a situation such as that in which the Conservatives are already complicit in the city of Carlisle. The agent of the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) is now standing as a candidate there in a by-election that was called by the Conservatives. [Hon. Members: "It is a city."] But it is also part of the designated area for foot and mouth disease. I remind hon. Members that the whole of Cumbria is covered by foot and mouth prohibitions.

Without our decision, an increasing number of by-elections would be triggered not only in metropolitan and urban areas, but across rural areas, in place of sensible, all-out elections on 7 June. It is for that reason that the decision is supported by sensible Conservatives such as the Conservative leader of Hampshire county council. When he was asked whether he agreed with the decision that was announced this morning, it was clear that, unlike the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), he saw the sense in it. He said that he was "rather glad" about the announcement. So, we have good, thinking Conservatives on our side, even though the right hon. Lady would not claim to be a member of that tendency.

I shall now deal with the legal and practical difficulties that the right hon. Lady raised. On the close of nominations, unless and until the legislation is introduced, the arrangements for the elections on 3 May and 16 May will continue. The legislation will provide, however, that nominations for the elections in England, Wales and Northern Ireland that have been made by the due date will stay valid--unless, of course, candidates decide to withdraw them of their own volition.

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On compensation, I am happy to talk to the Opposition parties about whether compensation to a degree can be provided to candidates or their parties. Obviously, there will have to be a separate scheme for independents. We think that 50 per cent. is enough, but we are happy to consider any evidence--[Hon. Members: "50 per cent. compensation?"] Not 50 per cent. compensation, but a 50 per cent. increase in the limit on expenses. Notwithstanding our judgment that most candidates will, in practice, have spent little money, it would plainly be wrong for a candidate who had spent money in anticipation of elections on 3 May then to be outwith the limit through no fault of his or her own.

We have considered the delivery of a free post, which I think the right hon. Lady had in mind, but we do not think that it is practical in the circumstances. On the legal requirements for annual meetings, I am again happy to speak to the Opposition parties, but the proposed law will provide for the annual cycle of meetings, which would usually occur in May in respect of the affected councils, to take place in June, after the new local elections on 7 June.

I conclude by returning to the right hon. Lady's point about dithering. I can think of no greater dithering--something with which the Opposition's approach has been replete--than not deciding on a clear date that is plainly in the interests of the country as a whole. As many Opposition Members claim to represent rural areas, they should listen not only to the voices of people in the farming community, but to those of people in the tourist industry, some of whose representatives have now welcomed the decision and the certainty that it brings, but have said that on no account, in the interests of the rural economy as a whole, should the date be deferred beyond 7 June.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (Telford): Although I fully understand the Opposition's strategy of wanting elections delayed until their political fortunes improve, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he has any estimate of how long the elections would have to be delayed in order for that objective to be achieved?

Mr. Straw: I was thinking about the Opposition and their behaviour in recent weeks. They make the Opposition that I adorned in the early 1980s appear a paradigm of virtue.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I thought that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) was trying to use up all the time between now and 7 June in asking her questions. I shall be much briefer.

The Liberal Democrats support the Bill and the change of election date, except in Northern Ireland, to which I shall revert shortly. Although we do not have a reputation for being soft on Labour or soft on the policies of Labour, we believe that it was right for the Prime Minister to wait until the weekend to make a decision. It may not be in the interests of parties or politicians to defer the election, but the decision clearly reflected a strong national mood and is in the interests of the country.

Subject to examining the fine print, we will expedite the Bill's progress so that certainty can be provided as soon as possible. The Bill has the advantage of setting a

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definite date so that we can concentrate on foot and mouth for the next few weeks. It also enables the tourist industry to know that it will be business as usual soon, and to encourage people to go to the many places in Britain that we want them to visit.

I have two technical questions. First, will local authorities receive full compensation for all the expenses that they have incurred? Secondly, will the Home Secretary re-examine the decision to postpone the Northern Irish elections? Northern Ireland is a foot and mouth-free Province. The tradition is to hold local elections there on the third Wednesday of May. Is the Home Secretary willing to consider proceeding with them?

When will we have a guarantee that, in future, Ministers will make announcements to Parliament, not national newspapers, and when will we end the pretence that we are not considering the day of the general election as well as that of local elections?

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