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

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Mr. Mitchell: The hon. Gentleman is raising an interesting point about returns, but why does he want candidates to be able to attack each other in such a fashion? I know that it will make the traditional Liberal pavement politics of bad-mouthing everybody much more difficult, but why should such leaflets allow personal attacks on other individuals?

Mr. Foster: I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to what happened during Prime Minister's Question Time on Wednesday. Clear statements were made by the Prime Minister on his and the Labour party's views on investment in public services. He rightly pointed out that there was a clear difference between those views and the views of the official Opposition, who have a different position on investment in public services. If the individual candidate for mayor, who might represent the Labour party, wishes to express a view about investment in public services—for instance, a desire to see council taxes rise to pay for that—would it be considered reasonable, under the regulations, for

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him to point out that one of the opposing candidates stands for a very different approach to funding of public services? That seems to be a not unreasonable thing for a candidate to do. That is not a personal attack by a candidate; it is drawing attention to the policies of his or her opponent. I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman has done that in his election literature over many years.

Mr. Mitchell: Perish the thought.

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman must be one of the few candidates in general elections who sticks by such a wonderful approach.

If we do not adopt the approach suggested by the hon. Member for Lewisham, West, which I entirely support, it is vital that we get the booklet right. One of the bizarre aspects of the regulations is that, under paragraph 4(2)(b) of schedule 4, if there are more than 15 candidates, the number of sides of paper that will be available to an individual candidate will be reduced from two sides of A5 to one. Surely, if there are more candidates, it will be important to find ways of helping the electorate to distinguish more easily between them. To suggest that an election address based on one side of A5 is the appropriate way forward is somewhat worrying. Does the Minister have a view on that?

The Minister also referred to cost, and we were grateful for the information. He told us that candidates in the London election were charged £10,000 for their election address. The hon. Member for Lewisham, West will correct me if I am wrong, but I think that there are 33 boroughs in London-—

Jim Dowd: Thirty-two.

Mr. Foster: That would mean, roughly speaking—rounding up or rounding down—that the cost for a mayoral candidate for one borough would be about £300. If we also know that the election expense limit will be £2,000 plus 5p per elector, the total expense limit for an average-size borough may be about £6,000. Therefore, £300 of that £6,000 will already be used up. When will candidates know how much will be charged to them for this exercise? The Minister must answer clearly; it is no good saying that it will be before the election takes place, as candidates plan how to use their election expenses a long time before then. If candidates know only a few days before the election, it will cause huge difficulties in election planning for those who intend to use up to their election limit.

On the quality of the document, the Minister said that, to ensure that the charge is not excessive, it will be modestly laid out and bound with staples, and will not use 128-colour printing. That could cause candidates difficulty, depending on their knowledge of reprographics. Under the regulations, a candidate could put forward a nice colour photograph that would be printed off on some old Gestetner, and the end product would look pretty unappealing. We hope that candidates will receive guidance on the reproductive techniques that are to be used before they prepare their artwork for the document.

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I hope that the Minister will confirm that returning officers will receive guidance on what to accept in the election addresses. I mentioned earlier that the Post Office has responsibility for general election addresses. It would be wholly unacceptable for returning officers from different councils to adopt different arrangements on what is acceptable. Many people are grateful that in the general election a national standard is publicly available. Candidates and their election agents can look at it, so that they know long before they go to see the Post Office whether their document is likely to be accepted.

I am sure that the Minister will say that my next point is entirely frivolous and trivial. I notice that paragraph 3(5)(a) of schedule 4 states that an election address must

    ''contain a statement to the effect that it has been prepared by the candidate's election agent''.

I wonder what interpretation would be put on that statement if a candidate were to prepare an address. It would then be difficult for the agent to say that he prepared it. Perhaps the Minister would explain that bit of legalese to me.

In summary, I am concerned about the cost, the knowledge of the cost, and the timing of the knowledge of the cost. I am also concerned about the ludicrously small space that will be given to candidates, particularly if there are 15 or more of them. I hope that candidates will have advance knowledge of what reprographic techniques will be used. I think that is important that returning officers operate to a common national standard of what is and is not acceptable in an address. Above all, for elections as important as these—however misguided electors may be in choosing to have a mayor—it would be far better to allow a similar procedure to that adopted for general elections, in which candidates are allowed to send out documentation prepared in the manner that they think most appropriate. I hope that the Minister will think again about that.

5.13 pm

Jim Dowd: I do not wish to trespass on the patience of my hon. Friends, particularly at this time on a Thursday afternoon with a one-line Whip, but I want to make a couple of points, in part because my borough of Lewisham is the first London borough to have voted to move to the model of a directly active mayor and council.

To correct a remark that was made by the hon. Member for Bath, there are 32 London boroughs, plus the City of London—although there is an argument about whether the City should count.

The hon. Gentleman should also not have said that people who voted for a different candidate than he did—such as the citizens of the London borough of Lewisham, of whom I am one—were misguided. They made a judgement about who they wanted to run their local authority, and what they wanted it to do.

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas) that I am not trying to annoy him. We are discussing a substantial document which addresses the procedures for the

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election of directly elected mayors. The document is substantial because we are charting uncharted waters—we are discussing how to go about things.

So far, the London borough of Lewisham is the largest local authority that has voted to adopt the model of the directly elected mayor. It is important to establish how the election will be organised. I wish the Minister to explain how the ballot will be conducted. In the early weeks of May, we in Lewisham will vote for councillors as well as for the mayor. I assume that there will be separate ballot papers, but that the votes will be counted simultaneously, so that we can find out at the same time who has been elected to the council, and who has been elected as mayor.

I support the supplementary vote system; I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) about that. It is strange that we should be expected to listen to lectures by Tory hon. Members about electoral systems, as they would not make any changes to the current system. The supplementary vote system is a logical and reasonable way to establish who has the greatest support among the local electorate.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): If the hon. Gentleman has such huge respect for the electorate, why is it that, up and down the country, local electorates have not been given the option of voting for the status quo?

Jim Dowd: That is a bizarre question. In the London borough of Lewisham there was a full postal ballot of all the electors to establish whether they preferred the model of an elected mayor or the status quo, and they voted to have an elected mayor. The hon. Gentleman can disagree with their decision, but they were offered that choice. If they had not wanted an elected mayor, they could have voted against that, but they did not.

Mr. Brazier: The fact remains that the electorate that I represent in the House were offered three options and the status quo was not one of them. If it had been, many people might have voted for it. Many local councillors were in favour of the status quo—and not all of them were Conservatives. However, they were not allowed, by law made in this country, to express that preference. Indeed, the status quo was not offered as an option to electorates in many parts of the country.

Jim Dowd: I find that incomprehensible. If someone is advocating a change to the system, the way to resist that is to vote against it. That option is open to everyone.

It is for local electors to make a decision with regard to changing the system: they must choose the composition and structure of the local authority, and they must make a judgment about how it can best deliver the services that they rely on. As I understand it—I am sure that the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—when that change is advocated a ballot will take place, and people will have that choice.

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman has perhaps been misled in relation to the existing legislation. Unless Lewisham is one of the few small local councils that were allowed, as a result of an amendment tabled by

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Liberal Democrat Members, to retain the status quo if they wanted, I have to say that all other councils are required to change to one of the three options provided by the Government. The status quo—the committee structure, and so on—is not an option. There is not a straight choice, as he was seeking to suggest, between the mayoral option and the status quo.

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Prepared 24 January 2002