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8.7 pm

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Deferment of the local elections is precisely what Opposition Members were demanding. Reference has already been made to the fact that, some time ago, the Leader of the Opposition said that the local elections should not be held now because of foot and mouth disease. Conservative Members are therefore hardly in a position to vote against Second Reading. Although I realise that they have said that they will not vote against it, in view of their consistent comments, they really could not vote against it.

We can imagine what Opposition Members would be saying if the elections had gone ahead on 3 May and, two days ago, the Prime Minister had announced a general election. They are concerned and afraid of a general election, not local elections, because of longstanding substantial Labour leads in the opinion polls. If the Prime Minister had said that there would be both local elections and a general election on 7 June, Conservative Members would have said that he was putting party before Government. Today, they would be throwing around that accusation rather debating as they are.

Mr. Waterson: Does the hon. Gentleman not understand the very simple distinction between an election whose date is fixed by statute--the local elections--and

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the date for a general election, which is entirely at the whim of the Prime Minister and does not have to be called for at least another year?

Mr. Winnick: I heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright) said about another year, but I was here in the 1980s--

Mr. Bercow: When there was no foot and mouth.

Mr. Winnick: Both 1983 and 1987 were years in which elections were held before their time, and not one Conservative Member argued then that there should not be a general election. I doubt whether it would have been any different if there had been a foot and mouth outbreak. Labour Members did not welcome a general election on either of those dates, but we never argued that the then Prime Minister should not call one. The decision was up to her.

If circumstances were different and Conservative Members were generally confident that they could win a general election, they would not ask for a deferment of the local elections. On the contrary: they would say that democracy must go ahead. They would argue that the Prime Minister had no reason to alter the previously fixed date for the election and they would urge that the general election take place.

Before foot and mouth came on the scene, there was no demand from the Opposition regarding the general election. That is why I argue that Conservative Members are terrified of a general election and that they will use any excuse to defer it for as long as possible until the five years of this Parliament are up.

Mr. Gapes: Does my hon. Friend recall that, at the height of last September's fuel protests, the Leader of the Opposition at one point--when the opinion polls temporarily indicated an improvement in the Conservative party's performance--called for an immediate general election? Is it not interesting that that call should have disappeared?

Mr. Winnick: I remember that very well. What my hon. Friend says strengthens my point.

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

Mr. Winnick: In a moment. If there were any possibility that the Conservative party might win a general election instead of suffering another humiliation, there would be no question of deferring any election, national or local.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I should remind the hon. Gentleman that the Bill is not about a general election. It is about the deferment of the local elections.

Mr. Winnick: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I give way to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins).

Mr. Hawkins: Given that, as Mr. Deputy Speaker has just pointed out, we are discussing the deferment of the

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local elections, is not the hon. Gentleman's argument torpedoed by the fact that all political commentators in all newspapers predict sweeping Labour losses in the local elections?

Mr. Winnick: The Tories fear the general election, not the local elections. I accept what you said, Mr. Deputy Speaker, of course. I shall simply repeat that the Tory party is demonstrating, beyond any doubt, its hypocrisy and opportunism. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) said, Conservative Members were only too willing for a general election to be held last year, when there was the slight possibility that they might win. They have exhibited utter hypocrisy about deferring the general election. Of course they do not want it on 7 June. They want it deferred, if possible to next year. We understand their reasons very well.

8.13 pm

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): I hope to produce the shortest speech in the debate so far, as I have just a few points to make about the Bill.

As you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, pointed out, we are dealing with the postponement of the local government elections. However, there is a background to the debate, as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright). We all know what that background is.

I think that the Prime Minister was right to decide not to go to the country on 3 May. It would have been feasible to do so, but would it have been wise? The foot and mouth epidemic is a serious crisis, and to have proceeded with the election would have appeared insensitive to the problems being experienced by people in many parts of the country.

There is widespread speculation that the Prime Minister hopes to hold the election on 7 June, rather than 3 May. Either date would mean that the general election would be held within two or three weeks of local government elections in Northern Ireland. That would not be desirable.

It has happened twice before--in 1997, and on an earlier occasion--that local elections in Northern Ireland and a general election have been held close together. It is not a good idea to have two such elections within a few weeks of each other. In 1997, the local government elections were held just over two weeks after the general election, and turnout suffered significantly.

The Liberal Democrat party has argued that it would not be a good idea to have the general election and the local government elections in Northern Ireland on the same day. I suspect that that argument was being advanced on behalf of the Alliance party, which does not want a large election turnout. It hopes to slip some candidates into office on an indifferent turnout.

I welcome elections, and the more people who vote in them, the better. When two elections come close together, the sensible and commonsense response is to hold them on the same day. That is what the Bill will achieve. Consequently, I think that it is right in principle.

Unfortunately, however, the Bill has been introduced very quickly. We understand the reasons for that, but a number of technical matters have to be considered. One of the disadvantages of the present arrangements is that they will not allow sufficient time to look at those matters. It is a bad mistake by the Government not to provide more time.

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A significant number of hon. Members have much knowledge, practical experience and expertise when it comes to elections. If any group of people is fit to consider the details of election, it is the Members of this House. I wholly disagree with the hon. Member for Cannock Chase in that regard. Members of Parliament are elected to safeguard the public interest, and the suggestion that unelected people would be better guardians of the public interest is objectionable as a matter of principle. However, I shall not pursue that further.

It is a pity that we do not have more time to look at the details. If all points cannot be dealt with tonight, the Government must ensure that they are pursued in another place.

Finally, I want to make one general point. There are a lot of elections in the United Kingdom now--for Parliament, local government, the regional Assemblies and the Scottish Parliament, and for Europe. Various terms and dates govern those institutions. It would be worth giving serious consideration to the election timetable, and to the interaction between elections.

In addition, it would be worth while to give serious consideration to the state of the statute book on elections, which is in a mess. What we are doing today is likely to add to that mess. There is a serious need, therefore, to look at electoral law in the United Kingdom as a whole, with a view to producing a simple, consolidated Act to deal with the matter. At present, it is very difficult to know precisely what the law is.

I have made clear my points of principle, so I shall bring my speech to an end, thus achieving the feat of sitting back down on the Bench before my name appears on the annunciator screen.

8.17 pm

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), and to say that I agree strongly with most of what he said, and especially with his last point. We need to look at the election statute book relatively soon. The matter is complicated, in Northern Ireland and elsewhere. I represent a London constituency, and there are no elections in London this year. However, the capital has its own electoral cycle, with borough elections every four years, followed every two years by elections for the Mayor and Assembly. It is a complicated arrangement.

I want to raise a more difficult question. I understand why the decision to defer has been taken, but I am a London MP, and the only wildlife in my constituency consists of urban foxes or the escaped rabbits that the foxes eat. There are no farms in my area, and life there has not been affected by foot and mouth in any way at all. That is true for the vast majority of people, parliamentary constituencies and local authorities in the UK. However, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Government have taken the decision because a significant minority of the country is badly affected by the crisis.

The decision to postpone elections is a serious matter. I do not want to have to do it again. Sometimes, democracy has to be conducted in difficult circumstances. I was an observer with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation at the elections for the Russian Duma on 19 December 1999. I was in a place called Barnaul in western Siberia. The temperature on polling day was minus 27 deg. They had something there which we do not

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have but might consider for future elections--a mobile ballot box. It is put on a heavy vehicle with chains and big wheels and goes to the most remote farms. People who are lying in their sick bed, have bronchitis or have difficulty in walking are able to participate in an election with the assistance of that device, even in those very harsh climatic conditions.

We do not have extremes of climate. We have postal votes, and our systems of mass communication are much more sophisticated. So the arguments for deferral must be carefully weighed. I do not support any move for an indefinite deferral. It causes many problems for local government and it sends the signal that democracy in local government and society is not important.

I am afraid that I disagree strongly with my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright). I do not believe that the judiciary, or some collection of the great and the good from academia, should determine how our political system should function. We must take responsibility for making the decisions, and we should suffer the consequences if we make the wrong ones. It is a cop-out for democratic politicians to say that these decisions are nothing to do with us and that others will decide on our behalf. That is not why I am in politics, and I do not think that Members of this House should, if they think about it, take that approach either.

I referred in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) to the views expressed by the putative Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, last September. I have drawn attention to that in early-day motion 488. The Conservative party is playing a very opportunistic game, and it is bizarre. On the one hand, Conservative Members call for an early general election; on the other, they want the indefinite postponement of local elections and presumably take the view that the general election should be put off as long as possible. That was not the view taken by Margaret Thatcher in 1983, after four years of a Parliament, or in 1987, after four years of a Parliament. It was not the view taken by Harold Wilson in 1970, although he got it wrong. He was ahead in the polls, but he lost. In our society, Governments that are popular and have a large majority go to the country early. That is a basic rule. Governments that are unpopular and in trouble hang on until the end.

I should like to conclude with a little anecdote.

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