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4 Apr 2001 : Column 396

Elections Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

7.6 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

During debate on the allocation of time motion, I spoke in considerable detail about the reasons not only for the guillotine, but for the introduction of the Bill. I shall not repeat those general remarks now, but it might be helpful for me briefly to speak about each of the clauses.

Clause 1 provides that the ordinary local elections that were due to take place for 34 English county councils and 11 English unitary authorities on 3 May will instead be deferred to 7 June. It also provides that any by-elections to fill casual vacancies in other local authorities will take place on 7 June, instead of during the period of deferral. As I explained to the House on Monday, it is not possible to defer by-elections that are due on Thursdays before, but not including, 3 May, as they are already too far down the track.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): I realise that the Home Secretary will not tell us whether a general election will occur on 7 June. If an election were to occur on that date, however, would a by-election that had been deferred for a minor authority such as a town council take place if it was timetabled to occur at the same time? I ask that question because a town council by-election would not usually be permitted to occur on the same day as a general election.

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman is right, as parish and town council elections are usually deferred if they are scheduled for the date of a general election. I think that they are delayed for a period of two or three weeks. I was going to explain the related provision later in my speech, but I shall say now that clause 7, which deals with consequential provision, allows orders to be made to enable town or parish council elections to occur notwithstanding the circumstances that he describes.

We have done the best trawl that we can, and it happens that very few parish or town council elections are occurring this year, as they do not usually occur in the same year as shire county elections. There are one or two areas in which new town councils are being established, and there are also some by-elections. I shall listen carefully to arguments and representations, but I will not speculate on whether a general election will occur on 7 June, although that is obviously a possible date. If a general election were scheduled to occur on that date, hon. Members on both sides of the House might decide that the deferral of parish or town council elections by two or three weeks is unacceptable. In many areas, such deferral would mean that the elections occurred in a holiday period. If hon. Members held that view, they might then request that we introduce an appropriate order. If representations are made, I will be happy to listen to them with great care. I hope that I have dealt satisfactorily with the hon. Gentleman's point.

Clause 1 also provides that a candidate who was validly nominated for the elections that would have taken place on 3 May will remain so without the need to submit fresh

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nomination papers for the elections on 7 June. One of the amendments tabled by the official Opposition is, I think, based on an anxiety that the rolling register means that candidates could be validly nominated as at 3 May, but if one or other of the people who nominated them ceased to be on the register, it could appear that they had not been validly nominated for 7 June. May I say, to reassure the Opposition, that nominations for 7 June will be fully valid if they were so for 3 May, and anything that happens thereafter, such as someone ceasing to be on the register, will not be relevant to their validity. If they were valid yesterday, they will be valid on 7 June.

Yesterday was the closing date for nominations, and that will remain the case until the Bill is passed. Assuming that it is passed, people who had been validly nominated as of yesterday will be able to withdraw their nomination papers up to 15 May, and it will be open to any individual to submit new nomination papers until 10 May, which will be the closing date for nominations for any local elections held on 7 June, using the normal election timetable. The close of applications for absent votes will be at 5 pm on Wednesday 30 May.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale): Will the Home Secretary confirm that it is still the intention to publish the nominations list at lunchtime tomorrow? Does he not think that, even at this late stage, that should be avoided if possible? Otherwise, people will be able to judge who has been nominated in the normal course of events and then seek to put up other candidates to wreck their prospects. We all know that the nominations list is secret until it is published, which is when the nomination process has closed. The Home Secretary should give some thought to that.

Mr. Straw: Frankly, there is no way round that. The law applies until it is changed. Even if the Bill proceeds according to the time scale that the Government have in mind, it cannot become law until next Tuesday at the earliest. Meanwhile, electoral registration officers are under a legal duty, which we expect them to perform, to observe the law. I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. In practice, the intelligence in any particular ward or electoral area is such that, roughly speaking, people know who will stand at a pretty early stage. I am already the subject of endless rumours about which of the usual six or seven non-traditional party candidates is likely to stand in my constituency, whenever a general election takes place. In most cases, people will have lined up in advance of the close of nominations for 3 May. Some may not have done, but we will have to accept that.

In recognition of the fact that the local election campaign will inevitably be longer and that some candidates may already have incurred wasted expenditure, such as having leaflets printed giving the election date as 3 May, we are raising the elections expenses limit for candidates for 7 June by 50 per cent. We do not think that many candidates will have expended much money. My knowledge of how candidates in every party operate at a local election level tells me that they tend not to have their leaflets printed until late in the day, but of course some do so earlier. It is possible in small electoral divisions for people manually to change dates on leaflets.

Notwithstanding that, it would be quite wrong if, as a result of the date change, a candidate who had already lawfully spent money on abortive campaigning faced

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disqualification because his total expenditure was over the limit, which is why we are increasing it by 50 per cent. That figure was based not on any scientific survey but on my judgment of the maximum amount that anybody was likely to have spent at this stage in the campaign.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I accept the good will with which the Home Secretary is tackling this difficult situation, but he is talking about his intuition. Did he take any soundings from political parties or returning officers to ascertain whether the 50 per cent. increase was enough?

Mr. Straw: I took informal soundings, but I do not want to suggest that the figure was based on anything but my judgment. We all have a nose for these matters, if I may put it that way. I did many calculations and, as the hon. Gentleman may know, the spending limit for an electoral area in county council elections is a flat rate of £240 plus 4.7p per elector, so we are not talking about huge sums. I think that a 50 per cent. increase will be satisfactory.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Does the Home Secretary accept that a better, more logical argument for that welcome increase is that many candidates in rural areas will now have to use the post, and they have no free postage, as I pointed out to the Leader of the House? People who jump the gun in advance of nomination day and print their leaflets in anticipation of an election are not to be encouraged. I offer him the better argument that candidates in some areas will find it necessary but expensive to use the post.

Mr. Straw: That is a good point. It is probably better than the one that I made--but if I am asked why I decided on a 50 per cent. increase, I cannot use the hon. Gentleman's argument because I did not think of it. I shall use the original argument on which the increase was based.

Clause 2 makes similar changes in respect of the district council elections that were scheduled to take place in Northern Ireland on 16 May. It makes no reference to by-elections for the simple reason that all 26 district councils in Northern Ireland were up for election on that date, and as no by-elections need to be held within six months of ordinary elections, there are no casual vacancies that would otherwise have been filled by by-elections.

The Northern Ireland provisions were discussed in the earlier debate by representatives of some Northern Ireland parties and the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth). It is self-evident that the bulk of the Bill is related to the Province. It takes the opportunity to bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom by providing that, if a general election and local elections fall on the same day, the polls should be combined.

Section 15 of the Representation of the People Act 1985 requires that, where two or more elections are to be held at the same time, they are to be taken together or combined. That has been the consistent practice for many years in Great Britain, but the Act was never extended to Northern Ireland. It means that if local elections and a

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general election were to fall on the same day, the polls could not be combined, so voters effectively would have to vote twice. Polling could not be in the same room and voters would have to present themselves to polling stations twice to be issued with separate ballot papers. That does not stop elections being held on the same day, but it creates something of a pantomime in their administration.

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