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7.52 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): My hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) made it clear in an earlier debate that the Liberal Democrats totally oppose the way in which the Government are handling the Bill. The way it is being rushed through the House is nothing short of a constitutional disgrace. I agree with the remarks made in that debate by the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), when he described it as a scandal.

I agree entirely, however, with the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) that the principle of the Bill should be supported. The Liberal Democrats believe that the Prime Minister was faced with an enormously difficult decision and that the decision to defer, taken after due reflection, was the right one.

The only point on which I fundamentally disagreed with the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) was when he rather implied that the Prime Minister had made that decision on a whim. The whole House will have welcomed the hon. Gentleman's refreshingly honest speech, which contained much common sense and a great deal with which all Liberal Democrats would entirely agree, since we have long argued for fixed electoral terms. With characteristic honesty, he also said that there will certainly be a general election on 7 June--"Trust me, I'm a politician." I am entirely convinced that he will be proved right.

I want to refer to some amendments that, because of the shortness of time, we will not have time to discuss in Committee. If the right hon. Member for Maidstone and

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The Weald persists with the amendments suggesting that the delay could be not simply to 7 June but to any one of a number of different dates, and that those dates could be different in different parts of the country, she will certainly get no support from the Liberal Democrats. The notion of having local government elections on different dates in different areas strikes us as frankly crazy. It would be unfair to certain groups of electors and wholly impracticable.

I suspect that the Government share that view. I am grateful that they have quickly produced the new election timetable, but I note, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove did, that it had to be rapidly revised 24 hours after its original publication.

Mr. Bercow: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Foster: As ever, I will happily give way to the hon. Gentleman, whose interventions I always so much enjoy.

Mr. Bercow: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman. We are at an early stage in our deliberations, and he need not have been quite so generous to me. I suggest, however, that it would be unwise for him to worship at the altar of 7 June. I understand his point on different dates for elections in different areas--although I do not agree with it--but does he accept that for the Government to insist on that date, and to die in the ditch for it, is both arbitrary and capricious?

Mr. Foster: No, I do not. I am delighted, incidentally, that the hon. Gentleman said that I was being too generous in giving way to him. As that was the first intervention in my speech, I will bear that in mind the next time he tries for a third or fourth intervention, as he so often does when I speak in other debates.

It is important that the delay be a relatively short one, because it would do democracy a huge disservice if there were to be continuing uncertainty about the date of the local government elections. Conservative Members have tabled amendments pointing out that we need greater clarity about the dates of other events, such as the annual meetings of police and fire authorities. I am sure that they would agree that there must be clarity about when the local elections are to be, and that only in extreme circumstances--perhaps those in which primary legislation is required--should we contemplate any further delay beyond 7 June.

I want to make a few remarks about Northern Ireland, as I fear that we will not reach the amendments tabled on the issue. It is important that the Government should be given the opportunity to make further comments about the situation in Northern Ireland before the Bill goes to another place. I hope that the Minister will say something about the possibility of both elections--general and local--being held on the same day, and the arrangements that would be put in place for that. The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said that he was absolutely confident on the security issue, but I do not think that that confidence is widely shared in the House. Undoubtedly other hon. Members will wish to comment on that matter.

There are huge questions, for example, about who will have legal responsibility for the verification of ballot boxes in a joint election. People will want an answer to

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that question. Quite legitimate questions are also being asked about the arrangements for postal votes. It appears that, if a dual election were held on 7 June, postal voting arrangements for the two elections would be different. Such arrangements could cause great confusion, so plans need to be put in place quickly to sort them out.

Mr. Öpik: Would my hon. Friend welcome a reassurance that the proposed arrangements will not leave the door open to increased electoral malpractice in the Province?

Mr. Foster: I am sure that every hon. Member would like to be absolutely assured by Ministers that every conceivable arrangement is being made to avoid malpractice in Northern Ireland and in every other part of the United Kingdom. I hope that the Minister will give us clear assurances on those issues. I hope that he will also give us clear assurances that there will continue to be consultation with the relevant body on those issues.

When the Minister replies to the debate, I hope very much that he will be a little more convincing about the foot and mouth aspect of delay in Northern Ireland. I was slightly surprised by another outbreak of honesty when the Minister said that the measure is about increasing voter turnout at the elections. Although I am greatly in favour of measures to improve voter turnout, I do not think that that objective can justify changing the agreed date of an election. Although increased turnout as a by-product of the change is welcome, the decision for the change must be based on the foot and mouth outbreak.

I have various quick questions for the Minister, which he may be able to answer in his reply. There is some confusion about whether the Bill will make the necessary change to the Local Government Act 1972, which specifically provides that county councillors' term of office shall be for four years. That term will clearly be altered if the Bill is passed, but I have seen no reference to that alteration in the Bill. May I have an assurance that the issue is being addressed?

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald mentioned the use of schools for the later election. We noted with interest the Home Secretary's statement that local authorities' expenses will be allowed if they were unavoidably incurred because of the electoral delay, but not if they were caused by the foot and mouth issue. So although the legislation may not deal with church buildings, which were mentioned earlier, presumably it will deal with the issue of finding alternative premises to schools that are being used for GCSEs. There may be some confusion about that issue and it would be helpful if we had some clarification on it.

I hope very much that the Government will accept the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald on changing the date of the police and fire authority annual meetings. We will definitely join Conservative Members in the Lobby to vote on the change if the Government do not accept the amendment.

I was delighted that the Home Secretary gave us a very clear assurance on the validity of nominations in relation to the rolling electoral arrangements.

Local councils will face another problem because of the delay. The Minister will be well aware that, under the Local Government Act 2000, it is anticipated that, by

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the end of June, local councils will have to submit detailed proposals on their new ways of working. Given the difficulties that many councils face, not only with foot and mouth but with the delayed elections, would it not be appropriate to extend that time?

I am absolutely delighted that the Home Secretary has accepted the principle that the Liberal Democrat leader, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy), was advocating yesterday and which others now support--that it would be absolutely inappropriate in the current circumstances to consider providing compensation to candidates. It would be totally wrong to provide compensation and small sums to them when so many other people are not only losing great sums and incurring huge expenses but losing their livelihoods.

I was disappointed, however, that the Home Secretary still seems to believe that it might be appropriate for independent candidates to receive compensation. A possible inference from such compensation is that the registered political parties should cover the expenses of their candidates. Very often, those expenses are paid out of pocket by the individual candidate, whether he or she is a Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat candidate. I think that the same arrangement should apply to independent candidates and that no compensation for the delay should be given to any candidate. Nevertheless, I welcome the 50 per cent. increase in the election expense limit.

Liberal Democrat Members support the Bill in principle, although we hope that it will be amended as I have described. Nevertheless, as I said, we accept that the Prime Minister had a difficult decision to make and that the legislation must now be rapidly enacted. Subject to our support for those amendments, we shall certainly give the Bill our full support.

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