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Mr. Straw: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks, which I will pass on to the Prime Minister. On the postponement of local by-elections, I should have made it clear--and I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman and other Members representing Welsh constituencies for not doing so--that the arrangements will apply to districts in Wales as well as to counties and districts in England. There will be the same arrangements for the postponement of by-elections which would otherwise be due or have been called in respect of dates from and including 3 May. As I previously explained, for practical reasons, we cannot defer by-elections that are due on the Thursdays between now and the Thursday immediately before 3 May--that is just one of those things.
Wales is a beautiful country; a huge number of tourist opportunities are still open. I know, as someone who loves walking in the countryside, that although it is not quite as enjoyable to walk along open public highways, the walks are still very enjoyable, and the views in Wales are unsurpassed.
Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): Is it not a fact that to go for an indefinite delay would have been totally irresponsible and caused many problems to many local authorities in planning their annual council meetings and making the structural changes needed to comply with last year's local government legislation? Is it not also clear from the tirade from the Conservative Front Bench that, having demanded a change in the date of the elections, the Tories have not thought through the complexities of delay?
Mr. Straw: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. It is absolutely clear from the rant of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) that she and her colleagues on the Front Bench have simply failed to understand the consequences of indefinite referral. If anything were to lead to uncertainty in the countryside, an indefinite referral would.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): Given the Government's wish to help the tourist industry, does the Home Secretary think that the Prime Minister helped when he chose, for a recent photo opportunity, a visit to the countryside covered from head to foot in protective clothing, accompanied by soldiers similarly attired for a crisis? How can we believe that the Government are serious about the tourist industry when that is the image they send out to the world?
Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): I congratulate my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister on this timely and wise decision. Does it not show a proper balancing of fundamental respect for democracy with accurately listening to the views of people such as my constituents in Lancaster and Wyre? Is it not the essence of good government? Does it not contrast markedly with the squalid self-interest displayed by Opposition Front Benchers? Is not one bright lining to this cloud the fact that, rather than campaigning on Friday for a resounding Labour victory in the county council elections, Labour Members will be able to turn their attention to supporting the Children's Rights Commissioner Bill, which will be debated on that day?
Mr. Straw: I commend my hon. Friend's Bill. I am also grateful to him--as someone who represents a constituency that contains a great many farms and rural representatives--for the points that he has made to me and to others on the need for us to take properly on board the concerns of rural areas.
Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): If it is sensible to delay the elections from the beginning of May to the beginning of June, but not possible or sensible to delay them any longer than that, presumably there is an advantage in that first delay. Given that the Home Secretary has already told the House that, in the Government's view, there is nothing to stop traditional and more modern methods of canvassing, presumably that advantage relates to the control of foot and mouth. Can he therefore tell us what assessment the Government have made of the likely status on 7 June of the foot and mouth outbreak--an assessment which has enabled them to believe that an election can be held on that date?
Mr. Straw: I take it from the hon. Gentleman's comments that he is against a deferral until 7 June. I set out very clearly the considerations that we have taken into account. As I made clear, we do not believe that polling would not be possible on 3 May; we think that it would be practically possible. However, we have also taken into account the sensibilities of people in the rural areas, as well as--as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said earlier today--the immediate and short-term need for a focus by national and some local politicians on the issue of foot and mouth.
Mr. Phil Hope (Corby): My right hon. Friend has already mentioned compensation for local authorities because of the deferral of the county council elections. However, there will be a considerable impact on returning officers and their staff who have to perform the urgent logistical task of transferring bookings and making other arrangements for the new elections date. Does my right hon. Friend recognise the extra work that will have to be done by returning officers and their council staff? Will he ensure that there is effective communication between the Home Department and returning officers so that, if there is confusion at any point, it can be cleared up as speedily as possible?
Mr. Straw: Of course I accept that there will be extra work. We are well aware of that, and we are extremely grateful to the staff of electoral registration officers and to the officers themselves for the extremely high standards
Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Will the Home Secretary, please, now respond to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) on the closing date for nomination of candidates in county council elections who have not yet submitted a claim? Today's announcement on delaying the county council elections will be most welcome in the Vale of York. However, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that it is estimated that the disease will peak, and that cases will quadruple, in the run-up to June? If that estimate turns out to be accurate, will he review the date?
Mr. Straw: I am sorry that I did not earlier address the nomination issue. Subject to the Bill's being acceptable to the House and to the other place, and to its receiving Royal Assent, the law will provide for the normal electoral cycle to operate. In normal local elections, the cycle of nominations being invited and closed and the other key events prior to polling day occur over 25 working days. That cycle will simply be replicated for a 7 June polling day. As I have already made clear, anybody who is validly nominated when nominations close tomorrow for the elections that were due on 3 May will be able to maintain their nomination and do no other work. Those nominations will carry forward into the new elections if the Bill receives Royal Assent.
On the disease and its peaking, obviously, when making our judgments, we have taken account of various possibilities in respect of foot and mouth. However, I am afraid that I can hold out no prospect to the hon. Lady of further review of the progress of the disease and then of the date. We judge that it is sensible, for all the reasons that I spelled out, to defer the elections for five weeks until 7 June, but not to defer them further.
Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry): Will the Home Secretary confirm that the chief executives of councils in Northern Ireland recently held discussions at the Northern Ireland Office on holding the council elections and the general election on the same day? Will he also confirm that there was universal opposition to that, on the grounds that in Northern Ireland we have two different electoral systems, that the council and parliamentary boundaries do not coincide, and that there will thus be extreme difficulty in getting people's votes counted, even with the proposed delay for council elections until the following week? In those circumstances, why did the Northern Ireland authorities go ahead and order 1,000 new ballot boxes so that the two elections could be held on the same day? It will cause absolute mayhem for the electorate.
Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman will understand that although I brief myself as much as possible for these events, I am not aware of the ordering of ballot boxes by chief executives and district councils in Northern Ireland.
On the other point the hon. Gentleman makes, I understand from the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), that the chief executives said that it was practical to hold the local elections and a general election on the same day--whether it is desirable to do so is obviously a matter for debate.