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8.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): I express my gratitude to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) for the brevity of his remarks. I hope that that will allow me to reply to many of the important points that have been raised in what has been a good debate. It raised serious questions, but I am grateful to hon. Members for their broad agreement that it would not be appropriate to hold elections in England and Wales, at least, on 3 May. I also thank Members in other parties for the support that they have offered for the proposal that we should defer the local elections until 7 June. I appreciate that there were concerns about those issues, some of which I hope to address.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) raised several significant matters. She mentioned that GCSE examinations take place in June, which might have implications if local government elections take place on 7 June. It is difficult to choose an election date because it always coincides with another event, such as factory holidays. The Conservatives faced that choice when they were in government and decided to hold elections in June 1983, June 1987 and June 1970. Each time, they had to take account of the fact that examinations were being conducted in schools.

We are certain that acting returning officers showed admirable flexibility on those occasions and will do so again. They have the resources and ability to prepare for elections, and can ensure that locations for polling stations do not interfere with the ability of young people to take their examinations. I am sure that acting returning officers will put contingency plans into effect as the need arises. Examinations are often staged in only part of a school's premises and it may well be possible for the polling station to be moved to a different area in the school. The issue is important. We have considered it and believe that we can rely on acting returning officers to deal with the problem.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald and the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) raised the issue of free mailshots, to which we gave careful consideration. If I may spare the hon. Gentleman's blushes, he made a statesmanlike speech. The difficulty is that if we have mailshots in areas that are affected by foot and mouth, it will be incumbent on us to provide the same facility to other people across the country. Different issues arise at different times in different places. It would be difficult to say that the circumstances are so unique that free mailshots should be given in one area rather than another. We would have to consider giving the facility to all candidates and people would ask why, if we could do it this year, we could not do it next year. We need a longer time scale in which to consider free mailshots, although I realise that the hon. Gentleman presents a problem that we face now.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald said--perhaps she should consult Hansard on this--that some areas are not having post delivered and they should have free mailshots, which slightly defeats the point. I think she meant that there are difficulties in delivering post in some areas because it cannot be taken to the door. However, farms are making alternative arrangements--such as providing a facility at the end of the driveway--to collect their post. By and large, mail is being delivered, so it is possible for someone to take a leaflet to those

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places without going across a restricted area. Having considered circumstances in my constituency, I think that it would be possible to hand-deliver leaflets. If the expenses are raised as the Government propose, there is a facility for some mailshots to be sent by post by the candidate of a person's choice.

Sir Patrick Cormack: Will the hon. Gentleman reconsider his decision? Special consideration is being given to parts of the country during the foot and mouth crisis. I am sure that an exception could also be made for postal deliveries.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: We have considered that carefully and I cannot reassure the hon. Gentleman that we will give it further consideration. I heard what he said; the Government always try to listen on such issues. However, we have considered the matter carefully and I think that we have a settled position.

The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald raised a number of issues. First, on meetings of police authorities, the power in clause 7 will allow us to make an order to postpone the date on which police authority annual meetings have to be held. I hope that that provides reassurance.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: I will but, given the limited time and the large number of questions that have been asked, it is the last time that I shall to do so.

Mr. Heath: While the hon. Gentleman is dealing with police authorities, will he confirm that the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994 specifies a four-year term for members of a police authority? Will that be dealt with in consequent legislation?

Mr. O'Brien: Indeed, that issue was raised in our debate, and I am coming on to it. The period for which councillors and others are elected depends on the re-election of others. The fact that we are postponing the elections enables councillors to retain their position; we are advised in law that that is the case and we will be safe to continue to allow councillors and members of police authorities and other organisations to retain their position as councillors for the month between 3 May and 7 June, so that the election can take place. If the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) wants me to write to him and set out the details, I am happy to do so--[Interruption.] I will do the same for his hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster).

I was asked about the updating of electoral registers. That is a significant issue which we are still examining. It is outside the scope of the Bill, but we shall consider the point made by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald. The hon. Member for Macclesfield asked whether the Bill allows for compensation to be paid in cases in which churches cannot be used. Compensation will be paid to local authorities for the additional expenditure incurred as a result of the postponement of

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the local elections; we will have to provide guidance on the detail of that, and I hope that it will deal with the sort of points made by the hon. Gentleman. Compensation would not be used in relation to churches; it would be available for local authorities regarding the extra costs that they incur.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) for supporting the Bill and the decision to postpone local elections. He proposed a single consolidated Bill to deal with all elections; that is an interesting thought on which I shall reflect. I am also grateful for the support of the hon. Member for Bath, who spoke for the Liberal Democrats. He asked a number of questions, the first of which was a request for more information on local government elections in Northern Ireland. I can provide reassurances in addition to those provided by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Returning officers are experienced in operating more than one election on the same day, as happened in 1997, so, even if a general election were called to coincide with local elections, we are confident that electoral officers will run fair polls and, as we heard earlier, that the electorate will cast separate votes at the same time.

I was asked who will verify the ballot boxes if--

Rev. Ian Paisley: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will the Minister instruct the House accurately? He has just quoted an incident and said that two elections took place in one day. That is not true at all.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. That is a point of debate, not a point of order for the Chair.

Mr. O'Brien: I heard what the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) said, and I will check--[Interruption.] I am briefed that that occurred, but my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has told me that the briefing may have been inaccurate, so the hon. Gentleman may well be right. May I check and write to the hon. Gentleman to clarify the matter?

Time is running out for me to deal with other points made by hon. Members. The points raised were important. I do not accept the argument of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) that we do not need certainty: we do need certainty about the date of the local government elections. I agree entirely with his hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield that Parliament has said in the past that it requires certainty. That is why we have a specific date--

It being Nine o'clock, Mr. Deputy Speaker put the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Order [this day], That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a Second time, and committed to a Committee of the whole House, pursuant to Order [this day].

Further proceedings stood postponed, pursuant to Order [this day].

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Queen's recommendation having been signified--

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52 (1)(a),

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