Draft Local Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (England and Wales) Regulations 2002

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Mr. Moss: Paragraph 4(2) of schedule 4 says:

    ''An election address must be printed on not more than two sides of A5 paper''.

The Minister referred to A4 paper. Can he guide the Committee correctly on that matter?

Dr. Whitehead: I have to make a humble apology. I did indeed say A4 when I should have said A5, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for correcting me. He will, of course, understand that A5 folded twice is, in fact, A4.

It was helpful that the hon. Gentleman intervened at that moment, because, as if by magic, the cost of the London mayoral booklet has arrived in my view. The cost of that booklet was strongly influenced by the size of the electorate, which was made up of 5 million people. Candidates were asked to contribute only a portion of the cost, which was £10,000 per candidate. That gives the hon. Gentleman an idea of the contribution from candidates for that size of electorate. I imagine that the contributions would be proportionate for smaller electorates. The mayoral elections next spring would normally be much smaller than the GLA elections.

Jim Dowd (Lewisham, West): I want to talk about regulation 11. As the only Londoner in Committee, I can say much about how the GLA mayoral election was handled and the booklet. Surely, all regulation 11

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is doing is extending the freepost system to local government elections. In parliamentary elections, we allow candidates to put their own material and election addresses into the freepost system. Why on earth do we need such a complicated system under regulation 11? It is not necessary for the returning officer to be involved in portraying the views of various candidates. All we need say is that each duly legally nominated candidate can issue a freepost election address to all the electors.

Dr. Whitehead: When that regulation was drafted, we were thinking about the convenience and the facility that stemmed from the production of a booklet for the GLA elections. Contained in one booklet was what would have been equivalent to a series of freepost addresses put forward at different times and on different bases by candidates. That ensured that every householder received the election addresses of all the candidates at the same time. That is one reason why that method of dealing with election addresses was widely welcomed in London. People had not only a reference point for what the candidates were saying, but a comparative reference in one booklet. The proposal is a distillation of that procedure, although it contains minor changes that take account of some feedback on the booklet that was less than optimistic.

You and I, Miss Widdecombe, both have surnames that start with the same letter. Owing to where that letter comes in the alphabet, we both understand that the order in which the candidates appear in the booklet might be best determined by drawing lots, rather than alphabetical surname order. The returning officer will have discretion to choose the most appropriate way to deliver the booklet. I could propose the more radical suggestion that the candidates should be in reverse surname order, but using lots is fair and reasonable.

Mr. Moss: I return to the drawing of lots. Will that be done behind closed doors or in public? Is this the first time that the suggestion has been made, or was it used for the London booklet?

Dr. Whitehead: No, the London booklet put forward the candidates alphabetically. The change would be that lots would be drawn prior to the booklet's compilation. The returning officer would draw the lots with the agents or candidates. The person who drew the lots would be authorised to do that, and the result would be binding.

The final, and perhaps most obvious, difference between the election of councillors and a mayor will be the use of the supplementary voting system, if three or more candidates stand for mayor. The Local Government Act 2000 establishes the use of that voting system in principle. The draft regulations give effect to that by detailing the operational mechanics of the system.

A mayoral election must be held if the electorate of a local authority votes in a binding referendum to move to a new council constitution that involves a directly elected mayor. Some local authorities are in such a position and will hold elections using the

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regulations in May this year, subject to parliamentary approval of the regulations. Other local authorities may move towards mayoral elections following referendums in the coming weeks and months. Mayoral referendums are being held today in Plymouth and Harlow.

The regulations form an integral part of the Government's modernisation agenda for local government. They will allow councils to continue to make progress with the implementation of new constitutions that give effect to the wishes of local people that are expressed through a referendum. In line with the requirements of the Local Government Act 2000, we consulted the Electoral Commission fully on the draft. Additionally, I place on record the fact that I am satisfied that the regulations comply with the Human Rights Act 1998. I commend the regulations to the Committee.

4.53 pm

Mr. Moss: I reiterate the Minister's comments that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship yet again, Miss Widdecombe.

I shall be brief. We have little to say against the measures that the Minister outlined. The tome is thick and the requirements are detailed, but we recognise that they deal with the necessary procedures to ensure the operation of a proper election.

We do not oppose the election of local mayors in municipalities that express a wish for that through a referendum. However, we understand that there is no mechanism in the Local Government Act 2000 for a town or city that has gone through the process of electing a mayor, and then finds that it is not working well, to unscramble everything, have a referendum and return to something more sensible. I hope that the Minister will clarify that.

Regulations 41, 45, 46 and 47 deal with the way in which votes are counted. The mayoral election system relies on the supplementary vote, which is akin to the alternative vote system. We oppose the imposition of the supplementary vote system for choosing a directly elected mayor for local councils and the London Mayor, because it rigs the system and in many cases prevents the election of the most popular candidate. The supplementary vote system is flawed—Sri Lanka is the only country that uses it. Will the Minister tell the Committee why on earth the Government have seen fit to go down such a road when alternative systems are available?

Mr. Mitchell: I am interested in this issue and I strongly disagree with the hon. Gentleman. What other supplementary systems produce as fair a result as the supplementary vote system?

Mr. Moss: Such a system tends to negate the votes of the most popular candidate. Often, one of the least popular can come through on the second vote. If it is such a wonderful system, why is it used so rarely—by only Sri Lanka, although I have nothing against Sri Lanka and would not like my comments to be taken out of context?

If, as happened last time, the mayoral election takes place simultaneously with other elections, voters may

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be confused because they are asked to fill in ballot forms on two different bases. In the 2000 London elections, which used two different election systems, evidence shows that 8 per cent. of ballot papers—the equivalent of 500,000 Assembly votes—were spoiled or blank, so the record of the supplementary vote system so far is not one that would recommend it as a sensible choice.

Paragraph 8 of schedule 4 deals with the setting up of the booklet. We have discussed the merits of the booklet already. As we know, the returning officer can charge the cost of the booklet to the candidates on a pro rata basis—the more candidates there are, the less each would have to pay. We are concerned that no cap has been required by the regulations. The Minister may say that in his opinion no returning officer would go over the top on the printing but, especially if the Government are serious about encouraging independent candidates and those from minority parties, it would help if they were not faced with an unreasonable cost. Nothing in the regulations says that the cost of the booklet will be discussed with the interested parties and their agents prior to printing. Prior discussion should take place.

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) raised an important issue when he asked how quickly expenses would come forward for candidates. How soon will they know of the costs so that their agents can sensibly budget for the booklet within the confines of the total allowable amount? There should be a cap in the regulations and more guidance given on what would be a fair and reasonable cost to each candidate.

The Minister gave an example of the cost for London. I am not questioning the accuracy of that figure, but £10,000 for each of the candidates in London is an inordinate amount to pay for a fairly simple booklet. Let us face it, each candidate is producing a booklet that comprises only two sides of A5. I do not expect the hon. Gentleman to explain the position today, but perhaps he will write to members of the Committee about it. We recognise that the regulations are important and necessary, and we shall not oppose them.

5 pm

Mr. Foster: I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Miss Widdecombe.

It may be helpful to place on the record that Liberal Democrats are unhappy with the principle of mayoral elections. We were opposed to the Government's introduction of regulations that impose particular ways of organisation and decision-making processes on local government. Now that there is the possibility of mayoral elections, I have some worries about the free delivery of election addresses. For example, paragraph 3 of schedule 4 states:

    ''(1) An election address must contain matter relating to the election only.

    (2) In particular, an election address must not contain—

    (a) advertising material . . .

    (b) any other material appearing to be included with a view to commercial gain; or

    (c) any material referring to any other candidate.''

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If there are only two candidates and one of them wishes to make clear the major difference between him or her and the other candidate, would it be possible for that candidate to refer to the fact that the other candidate has stated his views publicly on a particular matter? Will the Minister explain the position? I foresee enormous difficulty with that part of schedule 4. I assume that it will be to the returning officer that candidates will turn to gain approval or otherwise on whether they are in breach of the schedule.

The returning officer of a local authority will be responsible for making such decisions. Following guidance that was issued at the previous general election by the Home Office, and will now presumably be issued by the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the Post Office made decisions about what was and what was not acceptable and interpreted the regulations. However, under the regulations, the returning officer for the local authority will make that decision. Surely that returning officer will have a vested interest in the election, given that the mayor will be in charge of that council and therefore the relationship between the returning officer and the candidates will be sensitive. Does the Minister have anything to say about that?

I am also worried about the publication itself. I share the view of the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Jim Dowd) that it is reasonable for each candidate to prepare an independent election address, subject to the approval of the Post Office regulations, as happens at a general election. I remind the Committee that the person who is appointed will, in many cases, have significant power. It could be argued that that power will be greater than the power of Members of Parliament. Were Bath and North East Somerset council foolish enough to want an elected mayor, the successful person would have a budget of many millions of pounds and have responsibility for the employment of many thousands of people. He would have significant power. It is therefore vital that effective procedures are in place for the electorate to see, through a free delivery system, fair details of a candidate's views on a range of matters.

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Prepared 24 January 2002