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Mrs. Gillan: The amendments need not take up the Committee's time. I am sure that the Secretary of State appreciates that they are probing amendments, which cover the powers in the clause to vary the date of the ordinary general election. With the hindsight afforded by the foot and mouth epidemic and perhaps the prospect of an avian flu epidemic, I wanted to ensure that we had built in sufficient flexibility in terms of altering the date and that we were not creating another Procrustean bed on which to tie ourselves in knots. Boxing ourselves into a corner on timing is inappropriate, not least because I would envisage some changes in a state of emergency or circumstances in which the movement of people was undesirable.
I should be grateful if the Secretary of State responded in the spirit of the way in which I tabled the amendments, gave us further and better particulars of what would happen if some unforeseen outbreak occurred and explained whether we had the desired flexibility.
Clause 4 enables the Secretary of State to change the date of an ordinary general election. However, it must be considered as a reserve power that would come into play only when it was necessary to deal with short-term emergencies, such as foot and mouth disease.
I am concerned that extending the variants to three months either side of the first Thursday in May would give too great a margin of discretion. It could arouse suspicion that a Secretary of State was seeking to move an election date in a way that was politically advantageous to the Government.
The current provision is carried forward from the Government of Wales Act 1998, so the Bill simply re-enacts it. It would cover, for example, circumstances in which the nation was thrown into mourning close to the election date. A more prolonged crisis, which raised the question of whether the election should be postponed, would, and should, be a case for emergency legislation. I do not believe that a power for the Secretary of State to vary an election date by three months should sit on the statute book, because people could claim that it would be used for nefarious purposes, perhaps by a Secretary of State, who, unlike me, was unscrupulous.
The Secretary of State has considered his response to the amendments, which I shall withdraw. However, perhaps he would undertake to examine the
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drafting of the clause and ascertain whether anything could be built into it later to cover an emergency so that we did not have to rely on emergency legislation. Circumstances could arise that were purely local to Wales and it would be a shame if the Bill did not include the possibility of extending the time from a month to six weeks in exceptional circumstances.
Mr. Hain: I shall examine the matter afresh because the hon. Lady has a point. Since we are re-enacting a provision from the 1998 Act, we believed that the current provision was the right way in which to proceed, but I shall have another look at the matter.
Mrs. Gillan: I am most grateful but I hope that the Secretary of State understands that, simply because we are re-enacting a provision, there is no need for me to rubber-stamp it without asking what I believe to be sensible and reasonable questions on behalf of the people of Wales. Given that the right hon. Gentleman has said that he will re-examine the clause, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Hywel Williams: The amendments are probing and they follow representations from Members of the National Assembly. They suggest that the Assembly should meet after 21 rather than seven days purely as a matter of convenience, given the possibility of discussions, for whatever reason, between the time of the election and the meeting of the Assembly. I simply seek the Government's opinion on the relative merits of allowing seven or 21 days for the potential discussions.
Mr. Hain: As the hon. Gentleman said, the amendments would allow three weeks before the Assembly first had to meet either after an ordinary election when the date had been moved by up to a month or after an extraordinary general election. That might be convenient for political parties to consider the implications of the election results, but the public would fail to understand why, if they elected an Assembly, it did not get to work immediately.
Until a new First Minister is elected, the person who was in that post before the election will continue to hold office. The Assembly will have 28 days from the date of the poll in which to nominate a new First Minister and I fail to understand why it would benefit even Assembly Members and political parties for the Assembly not to have to meet for the first three weeks of that period.
The Assembly has to elect a Presiding Officer and a Deputy Presiding Officer at its first meeting. The public might take a poor view of an Assembly that did not manage to achieve what Parliament, the Scottish Parliament and the Assembly itself have achieved after each general election.
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The offices of Presiding Officer and Deputy Presiding Officer should stand above politics. It should not take potential candidates long to decide whether to stand and it should not take Assembly Members long to decide, according to Standing Orders and the choice before them, how to vote. I believe that the amendment would bring the Assembly into disrepute and I urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw it.
Lembit Öpik: I presume that the amendments are uncontentious and that the Government will accept them. The right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), a former Secretary of State for Wales, and others have made great play of the importance of consultation and ensuring that the maximum number of people are involved in any decision.
It follows, I am sure, that he and others, including the Secretary of State, will be persuaded of the benefits of allowing the decision of the date of an ordinary election to be subject to a resolution by the Assembly, rather than simply being decided by the Secretary of State. I presume that he will also agree that the requirement for a two-thirds majority would provide sufficient security to ensure that such a judgment would not be party political.
Amendment No. 70 would make it slightly easier for an extraordinary election to be called. The resolution would have to be passed by two thirds of the Assembly Members voting, rather than by two thirds of the total Members. We make that recommendation simply because it seems reasonable to ensure that a resolution for an extraordinary election should not be thwarted simply by the non-attendance of those who might not be keen to see it take place. I look forward to hearing the Minister's views on the amendments.
Mr. Hain: Amendment No. 69 would remove the requirement on the Secretary of State to consult Welsh Ministers on changes to the date of an ordinary election, and replace it with a requirement for two thirds of all Assembly Members to vote in favour of such a change. The Secretary of State's power to vary the date of an ordinary election would serve in exceptional circumstances; for example, if the nation were thrown into mourning. In such circumstances, I would expect there to be a national consensus. There would also be a problem with taking the decision in the way in which the hon. Gentleman proposes if the National Assembly were not sitting at the time.
Amendment No. 70 would reduce the trigger for an extraordinary general election to a two-thirds majority of those voting, rather than of all Assembly Members.
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The calling of an extraordinary election would be a most serious occurrence. It would mean that no party or coalition had been able to form a viable Government. The Assembly would quickly fall into disrepute if an extraordinary general election could be triggered without being supported by two thirds of all Assembly Members.
If our proposal increases the pressure to reach agreement on a viable Administration, that is exactly the intention. In practice, one would expect all Assembly Members to vote on such a serious issue. However, the Bill as drafted leaves no doubt as to what constitutes a two-thirds majority; it must equate to two thirds or more of all Assembly Members. The amendments would increase uncertainty at critical times in the life of the Assembly, and I therefore urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw them.
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