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

Mr. Gapes: Not at the moment. I should like to tell my story.

I worked at Labour party headquarters in the 1970s. In 1978, I was the national organiser for Labour students. I was at a National Union of Students training conference at Nottingham university in September 1978 when I received a telephone call from Transport house saying that I should return to London for a meeting at No. 10 Downing street the following morning at 10 am. I was told not to tell anybody, so I assumed that the then Prime Minister, now Lord Callaghan, was going to announce the election that day and that he would go on television to address the nation.

All the students piled into the television room at Nottingham university, waiting for the announcement. I knew that it would definitely happen because I had been told to come back to London the next morning.

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The Prime Minister came on the television and said that there was no election, he was carrying on and he had a job to do. I spent the next 40 minutes frantically trying to find someone to speak to who could confirm whether the meeting was on, because I had to get the train to London that night. No one was available.

I got the train to London, went to my office where I saw a big notice on my desk saying "Sorry. Meeting cancelled." The general secretary of the Labour party, Ron Hayward, had phoned all the people who were out of London to get them back because he was convinced, in September 1978, that the general election would be called by the Prime Minister.

That shows how personal the decision is. It indicates to me that it is a very difficult decision. Therefore, my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase is wrong. We do not know when the general election will be, because none of us is privy to the Prime Minister's thoughts on the day that he makes that decision. It is a personal decision that he will make. None of us can assume that the election will be held on any particular date in the future.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman has put me in a dilemma. I thought that I could not rob the House of his punch line, but I must now remind him that this is an embroidery well beyond the terms of the Bill.

Mr. Gapes: I am very grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I therefore conclude my remarks.

8.25 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): I always wondered how they had invented the spin doctor, and now I know. If that was the father of spin doctors, no wonder they wanted to get away.

I happen to agree with the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright). I believe in fixed-term Parliaments. Every other body in this country is elected on a fixed-term basis, and it would be sensible if the Government were as well. However, as you have reminded us, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that is not what we are discussing.

We are discussing the date of the county council elections. I called for them to be postponed even before my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made that call. I believed that it was the right thing to do because, as a Member representing a constituency that has foot and mouth, I see at first hand the real agony and anguish that this terrible disease is causing in the rural community. It was right and proper for the Prime Minister to take the decision that he did, and it is right and proper that Parliament should pass this legislation. I deeply regret the way in which it is being rushed through, however, because it contains issues of substance and there are amendments to it on the Order Paper.

I rose to speak, Mr. Deputy Speaker, only because it looks as though we shall not have the privilege of addressing you as Sir Alan later on, because the proceedings on Second Reading and the remaining stages must be concluded by 9 o'clock. As there are winding-up speeches to be made from the Front Benches, it seems that we will not have a chance to discuss the amendments.

For me, one issue above all is of substance. That concerns the date. If the Prime Minister was rightly concerned last week that the epidemic was not under

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control, I do not for the life of me understand how he can be confident of knowing by 10 or 14 May--which I believe is the very latest date for another postponement--that 7 June will be a clear day. That is why I strongly support the move, and I tabled an amendment to that effect, which was selected, to give ourselves the opportunity by affirmative resolution to come to both Houses of Parliament and defer the date again to another date perhaps in June, or perhaps to defer the date in certain parts of the country. I readily accept that it may be appropriate to have county council elections on 7 June in Lincolnshire whereas, sadly, it may not be appropriate to have them in Staffordshire and it almost certainly would not be appropriate in Cumbria or Devon.

The fundamental mistake that the Government have made in drafting the Bill is not to have allowed themselves and the House flexibility--an escape clause so that they could change the date without having to go through the rigmarole of primary legislation yet again. If we had incorporated a provision such as that outlined in my amendment or that tabled by my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench, we would have built flexibility into the measure.

We are denying ourselves, those whom we represent, and those whom the county councillors will represent a real opportunity. Sadly, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you did not hear the admirable brief speech made by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Tony Wright). He said that the Prime Minister was clearly seeking to orchestrate two elections on one day. My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) made it plain from the Front Bench that Conservative Members were not apprehensive about the results of the county council elections. We are most anxious to have them. All the pundits predict that they are likely to result in significant gains for my party. We look forward to that enormously. It is because the Prime Minister knows that and does not want to go to the country in a general election against that background that he is trying to put the two elections on one day. In advancing the argument for fixed terms, the hon. Member for Cannock Chase hit the nail on the head. He is right.

Others wish to speak, so I will not say any more save to appeal even at this late stage to the Minister. The Bill has to go to another place so, although there will not be a Committee stage in this House this evening, perhaps there will be one in another place. I urge the Minister to amend the Bill to reflect the spirit of my amendment and that tabled by my right hon. and hon. Friends. That would give flexibility to Government and Parliament to move the election date if, sadly, this terrible disease is still ravaging the countryside.

Those of us who went today to the presentation arranged by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and listened to the experts know that the disease is not under control yet. I devoutly hope that it will be on 7 June, but I have real doubts. So I say to the Minister, please, please, heed these pleas and put some flexibility into the Bill before it reaches the statute book.

8.32 pm

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I shall be extremely brief. I warmly welcome the Bill in principle, although I have some concerns about it. Unlike some of my colleagues, I believe that there is a need to put the Bill through quickly because we have a statutory duty,

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if the local elections are to be postponed, to specify the new date on which the local elections are to be held. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), I believe that the House has a duty and a responsibility to specify another date when they are to be held. To leave it open would be unconstitutional and most unsatisfactory.

I have to say to the Minister, and perhaps here I share the views of my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire, that I am not sure that 7 June is right. However, we clearly need to specify another date. I was at the briefing session to which my hon. Friend referred. It is clear that the daily number of cases of foot and mouth could peak in the second half of the local authority election campaign and perhaps even that of the general election campaign. If the Government's chief scientific adviser is to be heeded, in the worst scenario the number of cases could peak at more than 400 cases a day around 21 May. That clearly causes concern.

I want to ask specific questions. The Minister will be aware that I said earlier that in my area at least one parochial church council--Eaton council in the south of my constituency--had said that it was not prepared to make the church hall available as a polling station in the immediate future because it had concerns about the countryside, farming and the foot and mouth crisis.

My local authority will incur additional expenditure in administering the election. Will the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), assure me that local authorities will be properly reimbursed for necessary, additional expenditure incurred in carrying out our democratic procedures for local elections? At this stage, I make no reference to a general election that may or may not also be held on 7 June.

I am also concerned that, in many areas of my constituency, farmers will not be able to get off their farms and candidates will be unable to canvas and to introduce themselves to farmers. As several new candidates are standing for Cheshire county council in my area, how are electors to know all the candidates for whom they will have an opportunity to vote? Serious consideration should be given to allowing one free postal delivery for county council election candidates--if not to the country at large, at least to those parts of the countryside where severe restrictions and exclusion areas will prevent the operation of the normal democratic process.

I feel deeply concerned about that matter. I myself cannot call on many of my farmers at present, because I do not want to risk spreading that dreadful virus--the foot and mouth disease that affects so much of our countryside. Although many people may say, "The countryside is open", I point out to Ministers who highlight that fact and have recently used that expression time and again, that many people who have direct or indirect association with the farming community--especially the livestock farming community--do not want visitors to the countryside, irrespective of the losses that may be sustained both for that community and allied industries and businesses.

The Government have a unique opportunity to show good sense and a full understanding of the problems experienced in the countryside due to the foot and mouth restrictions. If the Minister could at least give an indication that the Government might consider making provision in the measure for a free postal delivery for

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local election candidates--especially in areas affected by foot and mouth--I should be delighted. From the Government's point of view, that would show a true understanding of democracy and of the need for everyone to have the opportunity not only to know their local authority candidate, but to go out and vote on polling day.

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