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Mr. Nicholas Winterton: Does my right hon. Friend support the provision of free post for local government candidates on this occasion? Although there may be difficulties in getting post to and from farmers, it is important that every elector knows who is standing in the local authority concerned. Without an election address, how will it be done, as canvassing in many rural areas is out of the question?
Miss Widdecombe: There will be areas in the run-up to 7 June--there are such areas now--where it will not be practical to deliver mail. Therefore, serious consideration should be given to a free post for candidates, at least in those areas. Again, we have raised that matter but have not received a definitive answer.
Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry): Perhaps the right hon. Lady should ask the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland whether there is a free postal drop at council elections in Northern Ireland.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. George Howarth): As the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) knows full well, for reasons mainly to do with the security situation in the past in Northern Ireland, local government candidates have a free post.
Miss Widdecombe: Therefore, it can be done and is done in some parts of the United Kingdom. Why should it not be done in areas that have been unusually affected by a crisis so great that it has caused the postponement of the local elections? I would be grateful for an answer. If there are some insuperable difficulties that we have not seen, I would be grateful to know what they are. I would be glad if the Home Secretary tried to convince us about some of those things, instead of brushing them aside.
As I have said, we support the principle of the Bill. I look forward, more in hope than in faith, to constructive discussions about the issues that I have raised and about others that will come up during the Committee
Inside the House, we are not supposed to be uncertain about things, but I was one of the Members who was genuinely uncertain about whether it was necessary to move the election date. I was not persuaded that foot and mouth was the greatest crisis that this country had experienced since the second world war and that this extraordinary action was therefore required, but at the same time I was impressed with the way in which the Prime Minister clearly felt that it was right--[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) laughs, but it is a serious consideration. The Prime Minister felt that it was right to respect sensitivities and to do something that he was not inclined to do. That should be respected.
If the Opposition--they have now provoked me--could make such decisions, they would be introducing the Elections (Indefinite Postponement) Bill. That would be the short title: the long title would say, "Until we have a new leader, new policies and some more support". We know where they are coming from, but the Government have taken an extraordinary decision.
My only reservation about the Bill and the proposed postponement is that I am not sure that it is the job of politicians to decide when elections should be held. It is a fairly fundamental point, and it is what we are being asked to do now. We are being asked to do so because there is a joker in the pack, which is that there has to be a general election on the day of the local elections. I say "has to": there is going to be one. [Interruption.] If that comes as a revelation to hon. Members, I should tell them that there will be a general election on 7 June.
Tony Wright: Indeed. Many voters believe that they are voting for five-year Parliaments, but the average length of a Parliament since the second world war is three years and seven months, so four years has come to be the rough working average. That fact guides all our assumptions. The joker in the pack, if we are honest with ourselves, is the fact that there has to be, or it is believed that there has to be, a general election on the same day as the local elections, and that there is to be a general election on 7 June. All those things have to be put in the pot, and as a result local elections are being postponed to the date of the general election. That is the fundamental point.
Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): Does the hon. Gentleman at least accept that, as a common-sense proposition, it would have made sense, once it began to be mooted that the local elections might have to be shifted, to prepare a contingency Bill or set of regulations? Equally, does he not think that it makes sense for the Government to build flexibility into the Bill in case his absolute assurances about 7 June prove not to be practical?
Tony Wright: I have a slightly different approach. I understand the hon. Gentleman's approach, but my approach is to question whether these matters should be in the hands of politicians at all. The question of when elections should be held is of fundamental constitutional importance. It is a constitutional fixture and politicians should not be able to get their sticky fingers on it. That would be viewed as an outrage in most other constitutional democracies, but we believe that it is entirely normal that we can mess around with such things at whim. We juggle all sorts of political considerations that have consequences and complications, which the Bill aims to tackle.
At one time, the Labour party was on the path of righteousness on these matters. Up until 1992, it believed that such decisions should not be in the hands of politicians. Indeed, its 1992 election manifesto said:
We introduced the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill--a good measure that sought to control spending in a pre-election period. It is much harder to do that if one does not know when the election is to be.
Tony Wright: I am saying that we have the Bill in this form, on this date, because the considerations that are being juggled are not the narrow considerations in the Bill but the wider considerations of choosing the date for a general election.
Tony Wright: If my hon. Friend does not know that, where is he? Perhaps we should pretend to ourselves that that is not the case, but we do a disservice to the people whom we represent if we maintain that pretence in public.
On the extraordinarily exceptional occasions when a fixed election might have to be moved, are politicians the best people to make the decision? We have just established an Electoral Commission--another excellent thing--and these are pre-eminently the circumstances, when an extraordinary event occurs that suggests that a constitutional fixture might have to be moved, when such an independent commission, operating on grounds of public interest, not of short-term, narrow political advantage, should be brought into play.
Sometimes, out of disaster, good sense breaks out. I hope that, as the House considers the Bill, we will heed the argument for taking the setting of election dates away from politicians and putting it into the hands of someone who can safeguard the public interest.