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Third Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Thursday 24 January 2002
[Miss Ann Widdecombe in the Chair]
(Mayoral Elections) (England and Wales)
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Dr. Alan Whitehead): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Local Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (England and Wales) Regulations 2002.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Miss Widdecombe. The draft regulations make detailed provision for holding elections for a directly elected mayor under part 2 of the Local Government Act 2000. They set out the necessary requirements to ensure that mayoral elections are well conducted, and put in place the technical provisions required to ensure that they run smoothly. The regulations closely follow existing provision for the conduct of local elections set out in other legislation, and take account of recent developments in the electoral process.
One of my colleagues said earlier that he was surprised that so many regulations were necessary to conduct an election, although the measure largely incorporates existing regulations on conducting elections generally. However, the Government have made a few exceptions to that general approach when the nature of the post for which the election is being held justifies the use of provisions that are more in line with those established for the election of the Mayor of London.
Taking those issues in the order in which they would occur in the election process, the first is the requirement for a candidate's deposit on nomination. We are proposing that a nomination must be supported by the signatures of 30 local electors, and accompanied by a deposit of £500. Although we recognise the concern that a deposit may deter some candidates, the Government feel that that requirement, and the fact that more signatures will be required than for a normal local election, is necessary to counteract the possibility that some people, without any serious interest in the office, would stand merely to benefit from the additional publicity that a mayoral election would generate. That could damage the democratic process, and might weaken confidence in local elections more generally.
It has been suggested in another place that nomination requirements should vary according to the size of the local authority involved, or that increasing greatly the number of signatures required might be a better approach. We believe that our proposals strike the right balance between making it as easy as possible for a serious candidate to be nominated and the need to deter less serious individuals. However, we shall look closely at
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anything that the Electoral Commission suggests in its proposed reviews of electoral law and practice.
Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He rightly referred to comments that were made in another place. The Minister there said that the Government had come to their view as a result of widespread consultation. Before the Minister moves on, will he tell the Committee who was consulted, and how widespread the consultation was?
Dr. Whitehead: As far as I understand it, the consultation was widespread and involved various bodies interested in elections. It involved organisations such as the Local Government Association and organisations that have expertise in the holding and running of elections. Consequently, as I have stated, our proposal is an attempt to come to terms with the requirement that there should be few impediments to properly nominated and serious candidates standing for the post of mayor. However, there should be a threshold, which would-be candidates should be required to step over to establish that they are serious candidates, given the singularity of the posts for which they will be standing, and given the potential problem of frivolous candidates standing to gain benefit from a mayoral election. The proposals under discussion attempt to address those points.
I turn to another point that is a departure from local government election practice and might also encourage a candidate who has no serious intention of seeking office to consider whether an advantage might be gained by standing. I am referring to the provision that allows a candidate to have an election address and a booklet produced by the returning officer, without the candidate having to contribute to the costs of delivery of that booklet. That follows the example of the booklets that were produced in the Mayor of London election of May 2000. They were welcomed by candidates and electors alike. However, we have made minor changes to that precedent.
Mr. Foster: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I hope that if I intervene now, that will save time later.
The scheme for the booklet for the election of the Mayor of London was introduced at short notice. It was a last minute proposal, and it followed many representations to the Government. It would be wide of the mark to suggest that there was great satisfaction with their proposals, and his statement to that effect should not go on the record unchallenged.
Dr. Whitehead: We must distinguish between the circumstances in which the booklet came to be agreed for that election, and the welcome that was given to the publication of the booklet by those who perused it during the election.
It is fair to say that the production of the booklet was welcomed by candidates and electors. There was a widespread feeling that it provided a good way of communicating the claims of the candidates to the electorate. That welcome was not detracted from by the fact that the arrangements for the production of the booklet went ahead at a late stage in the preparations for the election.
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Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby): I cannot understand the wording of the following passage. It states:
''The returning officer shall prepare and publish a statement showing the persons who have been and stand nominated''.
Does that mean that I would be permitted to have an election address, if I were to stand for mayor of Grimsby—which would not happen, because the people of that town have decided not to adopt this system?
Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover): Shame.
Mr. Mitchell: It is tragic, but the people of Grimsby do not realise that.
With regard to the point that I was making, if I were the new Labour candidate, and I stood for motherhood, apple pie, virtue and the regular brushing of teeth, would I state those principles in the literature that the returning officer sends out, or would I be able to send my own statement of principles by freepost?
The Chairman: Order. If an hon. Member makes a specific reference to a regulation, it would be helpful to the staff of Hansard, and to the Chair, if they would give a specific reference, so that everyone knows what we are talking about.
Mr. Mitchell: I was referring to regulation 11.
Dr. Whitehead: The regulations make it clear that the booklet would be a substitute for a freepost address. However, if my hon. Friend were to stand for mayor of Grimsby—or anywhere else—the booklet containing his election address would be sent to the electorate free of charge—as would that of all other candidates. The booklet would allow him to put what he liked, using two sides of A4—or perhaps one side, if there were more than 15 candidates—without any hindrance from a returning officer, who would do no more than ensure that the presentations in the booklet coincided with the law and were readable by the general public. The returning officer would have a hand in how the booklets were finally laid out, but the content of the booklets would be decided on and submitted by the candidates. The only caveat is that they would be required to contribute towards the printing costs of the document, but under the election process, free post is available to all candidates as a result of their contribution to that document.
Mr. Foster: When will the candidates be told the cost? If they are to be told after the election, and if the price of printing is higher than they assumed it would be, they may end up exceeding their expenses limit. What are the arrangements for the timing of the notification of that amount, and what are the rights of candidates to question whether the fee is reasonable?
Dr. Whitehead: Part of the duties of the returning officer will be to put together the document in such a way that the charges are not excessive. The charge will be made known to the candidates before the election. We do not anticipate that the returning officer will use hardboard on all pages and 128-colour printing. The booklet will be made using economical methods, and it will be distributed and printed in a way that provides value for money. Under the guidelines, the candidates will be told the cost of the booklet before the election,
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and if they are charged too much because the production costs less than was stated before the election, they will receive a refund after the election.
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): Can the Minister give the Committee the cost of the booklets for the mayoral elections of the Greater London Authority? He made the point that booklets were introduced under that election. It may be helpful to know what they cost.
Dr. Whitehead: It would be helpful—to some extent—but I do not have that information. I would be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman. It is conceivable that the information will appear before me at some stage today, and it is conceivable that it will not.
Mr. Foster: It does not look as if it is likely.
Dr. Whitehead: I am leaving myself open to all possibilities this afternoon—a wise political precaution.
We are dealing with regulations for a variety of elections for authorities of different sizes with different numbers of candidates standing. It would be difficult to give anything other than a broad indication of the costs of a leaflet from the GLA experience. Consequently, what the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) needs to imagine is a modest cost. Let us say that there are four or five candidates, and that their election addresses are modestly laid out on two sides of A4 paper—without excessive colour or complicated printing techniques—and bound in a booklet with staples. Given the hon. Gentleman's experience of costing his electoral campaign to become a Member of Parliament, he can probably imagine what the cost might be per electorate. I suggest that it would be modest.