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Mr. Robert McCartney (North Down): Has it occurred to the Home Secretary that local government elections and general elections have not taken place on the same day in Northern Ireland because of the two separate and distinct methods of voting--the first-past-the-post system and proportional representation? Is it correct that the Government, for political reasons other than the foot and mouth outbreak, had in the pipeline provisions for amalgamating the two elections on the same day for the purpose of aiding some parties in Northern Ireland?
Mr. Straw: The answer to the hon. and learned Gentleman's second question is that the matter was under consideration, but no final decision had been made. This problem intervened, and a final decision was made--[Interruption.] That is true. The hon. and learned Gentleman asked me, and I have told him exactly what the position is.
The answer to the hon. and learned Gentleman's first question is as he anticipated: there are two systems, single transferable vote and first past the post. That has been the traditional explanation--indeed, the only real explanation--of why there cannot be combined polls in Northern Ireland. However, during the elections for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, the electorate in Scotland and Wales were perfectly capable of understanding that there were two separate ballot papers and two separate systems. The Scottish and Welsh elections in 1999 were held on the same day for the Parliament and the Assembly and for unitary councils, and they went off without incident. The same applied in London, where there were separate ballots, albeit under the same umbrella. As a Londoner, I had two ballot papers: one for the mayor using one election system, and another for Assembly Members using a different system.
Experience in the United Kingdom and in other countries with far more complex electoral systems shows that voters' intelligence is, to put it bluntly, not to be insulted. They understand the system, and an examination of the variations in turnout shows no correlation between the complexity of the electoral system and turnout one way or the other.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): In a strange intervention, could I ask the right hon. Gentleman not to take too long? We must finish Second Reading and the Committee stage by 9 o'clock. Some amendments deal with issues of substance, are wholly in order, and have been selected by the Chairman. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to give us time to get to those amendments.
Mr. Straw: I have already cut out great swathes of my speech. The only reason I have taken any time is that I have taken interventions. I shall skip over the rest of the provisions on Northern Ireland.
Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I apologise for detaining the House, but this is probably our only chance
Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is a much greater expert on Northern Ireland than I am, as are others. I defer to him on Northern Ireland matters--and on many others, which we need not go into. [Hon. Members: "More details."] Later. As my hon. Friend explained, the change is for the convenience of electors. I do not think that electors would take kindly to polls on separate dates, but the more important issue is that of foot and mouth. These are balanced judgments, but that is why we came to that view.
Clause 6 deals with compensation. In my statement on Monday, I explained that local authorities, which are responsible for meeting the full costs of local elections, inevitably will have incurred costs in the run-up to the elections that would have taken place in May. Local authorities will be obliged to go on incurring expenditure until the Bill receives Royal Assent, which is a good reason for its quick and smooth passage. Clause 6 gives me, as Secretary of State, the power to establish a scheme to compensate local authorities for the unavoidable additional expenditure incurred as a consequence of the deferral of the elections.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton: Does the clause also cover the cost incurred by local authorities in providing polling stations when churches, because of foot and mouth, have withdrawn facilities that have hitherto been available?
Mr. Straw: I shall have to give the hon. Gentleman a reply later through my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary when he winds up the debate. The idea is that the clause should cover any necessary and unavoidable expenses caused by this delay. We do not want local authorities to be in a different position as a result of the deferral of the elections from the one they would have been in if the elections were to be held on 3 May.
In the exchanges on Monday, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) asked whether we were making provision for candidates who have had abortive expenditure because of this change to be given compensation out of the public purse. I said that I would discuss the matter with her and with the Liberal Democrats. We have looked into the issue, and I have discussed it with the right hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) and with officials of my party.
The parties are agreed that, in the current circumstances, it would be inappropriate for candidates of registered political parties to be compensated from public funds. I think that that will have the House's approbation. I thought that it was important to look into the matter and consult, but given that some people are unquestionably in worse circumstances as a result of foot and mouth--and for reasons that the House will understand have not received compensation--I am glad that the parties have agreed to that view.
I do not intend to change the powers to provide a scheme. Clause 6(1)(a) allows for compensation to be paid to candidates. I want to keep that option open,
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): The Bill has arisen because of the rapidly moving events of foot and mouth. The Home Secretary has told the House that postal votes will be valid up to 30 May. In the event that an exclusion zone is declared between 30 May and 7 June, assuming the election is on that day, would he be able to give returning officers the power to issue blanket postal votes for that exclusion zone under the consequential provisions in clause 7?
Mr. Straw: I shall have to get my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to provide a detailed answer when he winds up the debate. My guess is that the consequential provisions may allow that, because the order-making powers have been necessarily made wide. Under an earlier Bill--not the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill--we have already provided, by all-party agreement, for postal votes on demand. We are putting a lot of effort into advertising postal votes on demand, including in the farming press and in the local press in the areas most affected by foot and mouth. The time for applying for a postal vote has been considerably reduced to six working days. I hope that everyone in the affected areas will, in any event, apply for a postal vote. Practical problems were involved in the time scale, given that applications must be submitted and checked and ballot papers must be sent and returned--by post--in time for the close of polling on 3 May.
I hope that I have explained the Bill.
Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): In order to allow the House to debate important amendments, I intend to be briefish. If I am not interrupted too much, I shall even be able to remove the "ish" and be brief.
As I made clear on Monday, we welcome the fact that the Government have, albeit belatedly, accepted the argument that we first presented more than two weeks ago, but if I had doubts before about the wisdom of the guillotine motion that we debated earlier, they have been reinforced by the Home Secretary's inability to reply to some of the points that were raised. It suggests to me that the Bill has not been thought through thoroughly enough. That may be understandable given the time scale that is available, but it should sound a terrible warning about the sort of legislation that we may produce when we gallop through it at such an unnecessary rate.
It is unfortunate that the Bill is being introduced only now, after the legal timetable for the elections has begun. That has undoubtedly caused confusion, and it is regrettable that the Government did not see fit to take up the offer made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition two weeks ago.
We do not believe that the Government have got it entirely right now. In specifying a fixed date of 7 June for local elections, they have left no room for manoeuvre.
Conservative Members do not believe that the House should work according to the arbitrary date of 7 June. We believe that further powers should be taken to allow further postponement of the elections in some areas if it is clear that the crisis is not under control.
If it took until last Friday for the Government to decide that it was not appropriate to hold elections on 3 May, it is impossible to see how they can be confident at this point that it will be possible to hold them on 7 June. Such a proposition is illogical, and smacks of panic. The Government have admitted that the scale and spread of the foot and mouth crisis has caught them by surprise. The official figures show that the epidemic continues to run out of control, and that the action to contain it has not always been adequate.
We cannot be certain today that the crisis will have been brought under control--still less that the disease will have been eradicated--by 7 June. That is why Conservative Members think that the Bill should not set 7 June in stone. In Committee, we shall table amendments providing for an alternative procedure.
I am not saying that it is necessarily impossible to hold elections on 7 June; I am saying that we cannot rely on the fact that it will be possible to do so. It is clear from the Bill itself that the date has been chosen not because the local elections need to be held within a month of their original date, or because it is foreseeable that the crisis will be under control by then, but simply because the Prime Minister wants to hold a general election at the earliest available opportunity, despite the fact that the Government's term of office still has more than a year to run. When I hear Ministers talking about "putting back the election", I have to remind them that there is no question of putting it back; they are desperate to bring it forward, by as much as a year.
My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has proposed four objective tests to determine whether the foot and mouth epidemic is sufficiently under control for elections to be justified. They are replicated in our amendment. They require the time between the reporting of a new case and the time of slaughter to have been reduced to 24 hours or less, geographical spread of the disease to have been reversed, movement restrictions to have been lifted from most farms and the trend in new cases to be clearly and sustainably downward. We shall return to that issue later--at least I hope we shall, the guillotine permitting.
On Monday, the Home Secretary told the House:
Does the right hon. Gentleman also accept that telephone canvassing may not reach rural electors, either because they have no telephones or because their numbers are not publicly available? What assessment has he made of the implications of increased telephone canvassing for candidates in affected areas who may be operating on tight budgets, notwithstanding the increase in the expenditure limit for which the Bill provides?
The date of 7 June may also pose practical problems for candidates who are themselves farmers, and who live in restricted areas. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition raised that point last month and I repeated it on Monday, but as yet we have received no response. How does the Home Secretary propose that such people should proceed if the outbreak is not under control by 7 June?
I should be grateful for a precise response from the Home Secretary, or from the Minister who winds up the debate, to another point that has been raised. Concern is rising in schools, because many are used for election purposes and 7 June falls in the middle of the GCSE period. That could cause considerable difficulties, and I should be glad to know what thought the Home Secretary has given to it. If he has given no thought to it--which would be entirely in character, given his response to other issues that have been raised--I hope that he will do so.
In response to the Home Secretary's statement on Monday 2 April, I raised the issue of compensation for candidates who may have, in good faith, spent large sums on election literature that is now inaccurate, or contains the wrong date, as a result of the Government's tardy change of mind. The Bill provides for a compensation scheme to compensate both individual candidates and registered political parties for their expenditure on such literature. I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's further consideration of the matter, and thank him for consulting both me and the Liberal Democrats.
Conservative Members believe that the scheme should be restricted to independent candidates, and that candidates from registered political parties should not benefit from it. We also believe that criteria for the scheme should identify a clear threshold for the claiming of compensation by independent candidates, and that it should apply only when there is a significant probability of such candidates' not being able to mount a campaign in the run-up to 7 June because they have already spent their resources on material that will have to be destroyed, and are unable to raise fresh funds.
Because of the Government's guillotine, other issues--besides that of the arbitrary date--may never be debated. There is, for example, the issue of proposers, seconders and assenters, and the issue of the rolling register. The Home Secretary mentioned that in his speech; but there are also issues of detail. I do not think I heard the right hon. Gentleman deal with another anxiety that we have expressed, relating to whether the deadline for meetings of police and other authorities to which councils nominate members is being extended. A further issue is the update
I hope that the Home Secretary is laughing at an aside, rather than at the worries of electoral registration officers. If he concentrates, he may find out about things that he has not considered. That will make the parties' position at a June election even more difficult.