Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con):
It gives me great pleasure to support the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack). Indeed, my hon. and right hon. Friends and I have put our names to it. It is extremely necessary.
8 Nov 2005 : Column 276
This constitutional difficulty became clear because of the sad death of a candidate. My hon. Friend reiterated that this evening, as he did very well when we debated this point on Second Reading. We should not forget that we would not be having this discussion had this anomaly not been brought to our notice by that sad death.
However, we should all support these proposalsI am pleased that the Minister has indicated the Government's support for the new clausebecause the anomaly that left us without my hon. Friend for several weeks after the general election could, as he has just so eloquently put it, in different circumstances cause serious constitutional difficulties in this place. It is fortunate that we have this opportunity to put the matter right.
On first reading, the newly drafted new clause 3 and consequent amendments are not the simple proposals that my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire brought forward when he first introduced the idea. After carefully reading through the Government's thorough draftsmanship, however, I have realised that in seeking to close a loophole we must be careful not to allow further loopholes. As various Members have said this evening, what would happen should an unforeseen situation arise? While no legislation can foresee all the circumstances that it is intended to remedy, should the remedy be required, it seems that the thorough drafting takes into consideration all the situations that we can currently envisage that might cause a constitutional problem.
The hon. Member for South Staffordshire is absolutely correct in wanting to change the situation whereby new candidates would be allowed to stand, or candidates would be substituted, in an election that would result under the legislation. If there is to be a proper replication of a general election, it must be exactly as it would have been on the day of the general election, except for the absence of the person who has sadly died. The complicated wording is therefore necessary to ensure that that occurs correctly.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire is also absolutely correct to distinguish between an independent candidate and the Speaker, were the Speaker to be involved in such a situation, because the situation is not the same as for a candidate who represents a party. If we are seeking to replicate a general election, it is essential that that distinction should be included.
Clearly, the loophole that led to the absence of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire for so many weeks after the general election should be closed. Unlike on many other parts of the Bill, the Committee is in complete agreement. I therefore commend the new clause to the Committee.
Mr. Heath: I applaud the way in which the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) introduced the new clause, and I thank him for the kind words of tribute that he paid to his opponent from my party, who sadly lost her life during the campaign. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) was absolutely right that the circumstances in which the new rules apply involve a personal tragedy of a candidate dying during a campaign, which we should not forget.
The intricate proposals, which have been worked out, as I understand it, with the support of parliamentary draftsmen working for the Government, appear to meet the bill. In saying that they appear to meet the bill, I am
8 Nov 2005 : Column 277
not suggesting that I do not support them, but I want to enter one note of caution. It is very easy, because of the affection and regard in which the hon. Member for South Staffordshire and those who have supported his proposals are held, not to do those proposals proper justice in terms of scrutiny. The Floor of the House is quite a difficult place on which to do that. I wonder whether it might be appropriate for the Constitutional Affairs Committee to have sight of the amendments before they complete their parliamentary passage, so that we can be assured that the potential consequences have been considered.
Some questions arise in my mind, and perhaps the Minister or the hon. Member for South Staffordshire can help me as to how the provisions would apply in the case of other elections. Clearly, they are predicated on a death during a general election. They would also apply in a parliamentary by-election. I am not sure whether we need to consider parallel conditions for other elections, such as local authority elections, mayoral elections or European parliamentary elections. Perhaps the Minister will consider that.
As far as the precise provisions are concerned, the proposal seems to cover almost every eventuality. The circumstance in which there are only two candidates and an independent candidate dies, in which case the other candidate is declared the winner, seems to be not so much a process of election as of natural selection. Under paragraph 62, the phrase
Sir Patrick Cormack: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support. The only circumstance where the death of one candidate in a two-candidate race could conceivably happen is where one of the candidates was the Speaker, because it is the custom that the major parties do not normally contest that election. That is why we specifically separated the Speaker's election from any other. I do not think that there are any other circumstances in which that would be likely to happen.
Mr. Heath: I entirely accept what the hon. Gentleman says and do not want to detain the House any further, other than to give my general support to the view that we need to deal with the anomaly, and to hope that we do justice to the hon. Gentleman's new clauses.
I have nothing to add, except to say that I completely agree with all the points made by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire. The tragic death of the
8 Nov 2005 : Column 278
candidate in South Staffordshire shone a light on a problem that, with a great deal of hard work and consultation, he has solved. Should, tragically, a candidate die in future, the Cormack clause will swing into effect and will ensure that democracy is delayed as little as possible.
That the year-on-year, inflation-busting increases in Council Tax are causing hardship to many and take no account of ability to pay: further that the proposed property revaluation and re-banding exercise will make an already flawed system even worse.
The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons votes to replace Council Tax with a fair and equitable tax that, without recourse to any supplementary benefit, takes into account ability to pay from disposable income, such tax to be based on a system that is free from any geographically or politically motivated discrimination, and that clearly identifies the fiscal and managerial responsibilities of all involved parties.