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6.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. George Howarth): We should remind ourselves that we are having this debate because of the concern, which is shared on both sides of the House, about the great suffering being caused to so many by foot and mouth disease and about the proper democratic process, of which elections are, of course, a central part. I think that that is agreed, but we find ourselves in a situation that is almost without precedent.

Frankly, postponing local elections is not a step that any of us takes lightly, but we have introduced a Bill that is generally acknowledged to be in the national interest. It is a matter of urgency because the elections were due to take place in England and Wales and, indeed, in Northern Ireland, during May. So we must ensure that there is clarity for the candidates who are standing in those elections and for the councils, which need to make the necessary arrangements for the elections and for what happens afterwards.

The need for clarity is one of the reasons why we introduced the allocation of time motion. If this House and the other place do not pass the Bill, what we shall

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have is an aspiration, rather than clarity about what should definitely happen. That argument must be weighed in the balance and taken seriously.

I want to comment on the argument used by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), who opened the debate for the official Opposition. As she is well aware, I personally have some affection for her. Nevertheless, she occasionally has the capacity to go somewhat over the top, and others have commented on that trait. I do not think that I shall be misrepresenting her if I say that the burden of her argument, as I understood it, was that both Bills involve enormously important constitutional matters and, as such, should not be subject to a timetable motion at all. That was more or less the burden of her speech. Indeed, she was supported by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), who is sitting next to her, who complained, on behalf of the Opposition, about a lack of consultation.

Let me examine the points that the right hon. Lady made and explain what we are doing. The Election Publications Bill will do precisely what the Conservative party requested we do. On 16 March, the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Prior) wrote to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. The hon. Gentleman is described in the letter as the chief executive and registered treasurer of the Conservative party, and his letter concludes:

The subject is a matter of urgency and the chief executive and registered treasurer of the Conservative party recognises that the matter not only needs addressing, but needs addressing urgently. Those were his words.

Miss Widdecombe: Is the Minister not confusing two issues: the urgency and speed with which a Bill should be introduced and the degree of speed with which it should be carried through the House? There is common ground that both Bills had to be introduced with great urgency, but the common ground breaks up because we believe that great urgency should not be used as an excuse for no scrutiny.

Mr. Howarth: The right hon. Lady has set out an argument and is determined to maintain it in all circumstances. That is an understandable debating position to take. However, she should have listened carefully to what I said a moment ago. I said that political parties, local authorities, candidates and agents and everyone involved in the electoral process needed clarity. If we are to have clarity, it is urgent not only that we address the issue but that we get provisions on to the statute book as quickly as possible.

Mr. Forth rose--

Mr. Hawkins rose--

Mr. Howarth: I want to develop my point, but I shall give way in a minute. I ask the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Gentleman to exercise a little patience.

Let me explain the purpose behind the Election Publications Bill. The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 introduced new requirements for

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the posters, leaflets and so on that political parties and others use in campaigns. Those new requirements were brought into effect, along with the main provisions of the Act relating to election spending and donations, from 16 February 2001. With hindsight, that was too soon for the particular provisions covered by the Election Publications Bill. Political parties and candidates all over the country were left with insufficient time to rework their election material. They are very familiar, as we all are, with the old requirements and it is right that they should be allowed to work to those requirements for a period.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald said that that is an important constitutional change. It is not--the Bill will put right a problem that emerged as a result of the outworkings of the Act. That is all that we are doing.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to the Minister for his characteristic courtesy in giving way. If the matter is as urgent as he says, how was it that, although the Election Publications Bill was on the Order Paper on Monday when it could have been dealt with perfectly adequately, for some mysterious reason, the Government withdrew it and have brought it back to the House two days later under a one-hour time constraint? What sort of urgency is that?

Mr. Howarth: The short answer is that, since the Bills contain some common characteristics and cover some common issues, it was considered convenient to bring them together--[Interruption.] If Opposition Members will allow me to proceed, I shall come to the other point that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald made.

The right hon. Lady said that the Elections Bill had major constitutional implications and suggested that debate on it should be subject to an almost open-ended procedure. As she and the House know, the Bill will delay the date of the local elections. That is precisely what the Leader of the Opposition has been asking for, and precisely what, after due consideration, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister decided was appropriate in the national interest. To describe that as a major constitutional change leaves the right hon. Lady open to the normal accusation that is made against her--she is again guilty of hyperbole.

Mr. Hawkins: In the light of the Minister's remarks and the fact that, in another place, Baroness Jay of Paddington has allowed for two days of debate, how can he justify the fact that the Government have provided this House only the rest of this evening for debate on the Elections Bill and only one hour for the important Bill that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) mentioned?

Mr. Howarth: My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary made the issue abundantly clear in his opening speech. Circumstances in the other place are as they are because the Opposition there are far more disciplined and better organised than they are in this House. I have a sneaking admiration for the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), as he well knows. However, he and one or two of his colleagues have the capacity, while remaining in order, to stretch out the business of the House to sometimes ludicrous proportions. Frankly, that point has to be factored into any considerations about the business of the House.

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I wish to deal with some of the arguments that have been made by Members representing constituencies in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) said that the Government were planning to combine the polls in any event and that foot and mouth disease was used to provide just another excuse. That was the burden of his argument. Two separate issues are involved, and I think that he would acknowledge that.

First, we need to take a UK-wide approach to the outbreak of foot and mouth. Therefore, to defer until June elections across the UK seems to us to make sense. As the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, Northern Ireland has not been foot and mouth disease free. There has been one case, but I am sure that everyone wants to keep it at that. He is chairman of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development in the Northern Ireland Assembly, so I am sure that he would agree that it is important to take all the necessary precautions to ensure that Northern Ireland remains reasonably free from foot and mouth.

Secondly, although it obviously depends on when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister calls the general election, there is a case for combining the elections. The argument for combining the two polls relates to the effect on voter turnout. There is evidence that, if two polls are conducted on one day, turnout is higher. Surely that is good for democracy.

Rev. Ian Paisley: The Minister is well aware of the regionalisation in Northern Ireland. The supremo of Europe has declared that we do not have foot and mouth disease in any council area except one. That is the legal position. He should not keep saying that we have foot and mouth disease where we do not. On voter turnout in local government elections, Northern Ireland has a good record on that compared with the rest of the United Kingdom. If the Labour party had all those people turning out to vote, it would not be changing the law.

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