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Sir Patrick Cormack: I am delighted to be able to move new clause 3 and grateful to you, Sir Alan, for grouping it with new clause 2. It has been a long wait, but not quite as long as the wait that I had before I got here in the summer.
I begin by paying a genuine tribute to the Minister and her staff, who have been unfailingly courteous and helpful to me. When I sought leave to introduce my private Member's Bill under the ten-minute rule on 6 July, the Minister immediately got in touch with me and told me that she was minded to support my Bill, but that it might be better to incorporate it into the Bill that she proposed to introduce to the House in the autumn. That is why we are where we are today, as I said on Second Reading.
The new clauses would incorporate in the Bill most of the provisions of the measure that I sought to introduce after my delayed return to the House of Commons because of the tragic death of one of my opponents, the Liberal Democrat candidate. I am grateful to colleagues in all parties for their support. Those who have put their names to the new clause give some indication of that support.
However, I believe that, for once, there has been an error because the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine), who has newly arrived in the House in place of the late Robin Cook, was one of my supporters, but I see that his name has been translated into that of the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), who chairs the Select Committee on Home Affairs. I am sure that he would equally support the new clause, but I wanted to put on the record my gratitude to the hon. Member for Livingston for stepping into Robin Cook's shoes because he was one of the sponsors of the original Bill.
I do not want to detain or weary the House, but I wish to explain briefly the effect of the new clauses. They appear to be rather more complicated than the measure that I tried to introduce because the Minister's officials and the parliamentary draftsmen have taken a belt-and-braces approach to the matter, for which I am grateful.
Delay was one of the principal causes of concern. Under the new clause, had my opponent died between 20 and 27 April, the election would have been postponed by three weeks at the most. My opponent died on 30 April and I would have faced either a three-week or a four-week delay. I say "either/or" because it depends
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on the time of year. My opponent died before a period that included the bank holiday. The problem of delay is therefore tackled fairly effectively.
The new clause provides that the death of an independent candidate would not delay an election. I have previously argued that an independent candidate is by definition and sui generis a unique individual. If, sadly, that individual dies, he or she cannot be replaced. The draftsmen wanted to cover every eventuality and the new clause therefore makes one exception. If the Speaker dies in his constituency, he would not be treated as an independent candidate and the election would be rerun. We all know that the Speaker stands as Mr. Speaker seeking re-election. He is not a member of any political party but is in a unique position and the new clause recognises that.
The new clause also covers what would happen if the deceased independent candidate won. There would be no contest unless it was simply a two-horse race, in which case the one who did not die is declared elected. I hope that that will not put too many ideas into people's heads. The days of the straight fight appear, perhaps sadly, to be over.
I was anxious to tackle the problemI know that that applies to the Minister, tooof small and eccentric parties. We have not yet cracked that one; perhaps it might be possible to do so in another place. I am sure that if an ingenious Lord devised an amendment, the Minister and her colleagues would probably view it sympathetically. As the new clause stands, every registered political party, regardless of its size or nature, is treated the same. The new clause does not, therefore, deal with that.
Rule 65, entitled "Abandoned poll", deals with keeping documentation in the event of a candidate's death. As we all know, the documentation following an election has to be kept for a prescribed period. That would remain the case if an election were abandoned.
Sir Patrick Cormack: No, there cannot be. In this wonderful democracy of ours, it is entirely up to people to register as political parties if they meet the criteria, and if they have money to spend they can fight as many elections as they like. No, this provision would not cover the Natural Law party or the British National party. It would not cover any party registered as a political party. It would not cover the Vote For Yourself Rainbow Dream Ticket party, to which I have referred in the House before, a lady representative of which stood in all four seats in Cardiff. She got one vote in one of them. Presumably, as she was a member of a vote-for-yourself party, it was her own vote. That party would not be covered.
I hope that we can have further examination of this particular problem. Among those 13 or so candidates who stood against the Prime Minister, some were indeed independents, but others belonged to strange and eccentric parties. I hope that we can find a mechanism
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for differentiating between the parties represented in the House tonight and those other fringe parties, but we have not yet done so.
Mr. Peter Robinson : This is a problem and it needs to be resolved. It is possible that a euthanasia party or a hara-kiri party could be registered and, as part of their election campaign, their candidates would obviously die. Such parties might be small and eccentric, but the problem has to be dealt with. Could we not set a threshold of a certain number of votes polled at the previous election, or a number of Members of Parliament returned at the previous election, to overcome the problem?
Sir Patrick Cormack: I put forward that proposal in my first speech, when I introduced my Bill. I had talks with the Minister and her officials and with the chairman of the Electoral Commission, but they all felt that it would be difficult to agree on any particular point. I also suggestedthis might be given further considerationthat the criteria by which a political party gets a political broadcast might be brought into play in this context. However, we still have a potential problem, and the hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Robinson) has underlined it in rather graphic and dramatic form.
Dr. Rudi Vis (Finchley and Golders Green) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman please tell us what would happen if two people from minority parties died at the same time? I should be most interested to hear his analysis of such a situation.
My plight before 5 May underlined a very real problem, and Members in all parts of the House were extremely kind in recognising that. I do not pretend that the Bill meets every eventuality, and nor would the Minister so claim, but it does meet most of them. One other problem that it does not address is one with which the Minister's officials and I struggled. We wondered whether it would be possible to give the afflicted party, if I can put it that way, the opportunity of knowing whether it should continue. But, of course, that would depend on when the death occurred, and the party would have to have some time to make that decision. We did not feel, therefore, that we could include that provision.
There is one provision in the new clause that was not in my original Bill, and I am grateful to the Minister for its inclusion. It states that a party is not allowed to substitute its candidates. In my case, for instance, the Liberal Democrat candidate died, and there had to be an opportunity for the Liberal Democrat party to field another candidate. However, the Labour party changed its candidate, too. I want to stress that I am not making any criticism of the two people in question, with whom I was on extremely good terms. I understood the reasons why that had happened. What they did was also entirely legal, as the law stands. However, the Minister feels, and
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I agree with her, that the death of one candidate should not provide an opportunity for other parties to substitute candidates.
The new clause would also not allow new candidates to enter the field. In my election on 5 May, I had three opponents, but I subsequently finished up with seven. That would not be allowed. If the general election is being replicatedI was elected legally at the general electionthere should not be the opportunity for new candidates to enter the field. New clause 3 deals with all those points.
New clause 2 addresses a specific and remaining problemnot one that arose in my case, but one that I was able to highlight when I talked to the lady who stood in the four Cardiff seats. As Members on both sides of the House probably know, there is nothing to prevent any one of us, provided we can provide the requisite number of signatures and the requisite deposits, from standing in as many constituencies as we wish. The Minister and I believe that the days of that being permissible are long gone. It is up to an individual to decide which seat he or she wishes to contest, without being able to stand in a range of others.
My case showed what might happenthis picks up on a point made by the hon. Member for Belfast, East in his interventionso one can envisage an individual standing against every member of the Cabinet or shadow Cabinet, or against the Speaker and all the Deputy Speakers. If that person died, committed suicide or was assassinated, all those seats would be without Members for a period.
At the last election, the complexion of the Government was not in doubt on 6 May, nor did it depend on the result in South Staffordshire, but I have been a Member of the House for a very long time and I remember that there was no overall majority after the first election in 1974. There was a weekend of bargaining between the late Sir Edward Heath, whose memorial service many of us attended today, and Mr. Jeremy Thorpe to see whether a coalition of some sort could be cobbled together.
Later that year there was another election, after which the Labour party had an overall majority of four. You have only to imagine, Sir Alan, what might happen if a candidate standing in half a dozen seats died or killed himself in such a situation. There could be constitutional chaos. So, new clause 2 addresses that specific point and will make it impossible for any individual to stand in more than one seat.
The two new clauses meet virtually all the points that I addressed in my Bill on 6 July. I am grateful to the Minister for her co-operation; I am extremely grateful, as I said at the outset, to her officials. I hope that the House gives the new clauses a fair wind so that they can be incorporated in the Bill and so that nobody, in any part of the House, has to face what I faced in those seven rather difficult weeks in May and June this year.
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