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I look forward to hearing what the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) has to say, but
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I was slightly surprised by the amendment that he has tabled. It seems to favour a 12-month notice period even though Baroness Hanham, who leads for the Conservative party in the other place, tabled an amendment for six months just as the Government amendment proposes. We have accepted the need for a substantial period between the order and the election, and I have explained the reasons for that. However, by making the period too long, we would lose the potential value of the provision and would risk being in a similar position to the one that the Representation of the People Act 1983 gives us. The period between the notice and the order and the election itself would not allow us the flexibility to make the changes. That is one of the reasons why the provisions in the 1983 Act have been used just once in nearly 25 years.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): I declare an interest as a member of Tameside metropolitan council until next May. Metropolitan districts such as Tameside and Stockport—they cover my constituency—elect by thirds so, in reality, they have annual elections except for the fallow year. Would the Conservative amendment not mean that local authorities would be looking at the election in front of the forthcoming election because the 12-month period would mean that, for example, the local election in May would be before the following election that is linked to the European election? That would cause great confusion for the electoral services officers in those local authorities.

John Healey: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If the argument is for a 12-month period between the order and the election, clearly the process of preparing the order, consulting on it and the consideration in the House beforehand mean precisely that one would have to make the changes a year before the election. Even though the Electoral Commission has raised the issue with us, I have not heard sufficient or persuasive arguments for a 12-month period. The six-month period that appears in the Bill is the right one to put in place. The arguments for such a period to appear in the Bill were correct, and that is why we tabled the amendment in the other place. I hope that this House will accept that amendment and the other amendments in the group.

Alistair Burt: I draw attention to amendment (a) to amendment No. 48 that was tabled by me and my hon. Friends.

I again recognise the work that has been done by the Government and those in the other place to seek the concessions that the Minister has mentioned for extending the time for changes to council elections. It is also appreciated that changes have been made that will make it less likely that we have “Kellyshire” or—dare I say it—“Healeyshire” produced as an administrative change by Secretaries of State should local authority areas change their name. The provision should prevent something like that from happening. We appreciate the fact that the arguments have been listened to.

We spent a long time on the first group of amendments so I shall save time by returning to the issues relating to moving the date of the local elections and tying them in with European parliamentary
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elections. The Minister has already considered that point, but he is entitled to an explanation as to why we have brought forward our proposal now when it was not considered in the other place a little while ago. Circumstances change and it cannot have escaped the notice of the House that choosing the date of an election is a stressful experience. In recent times, we have seen stress attached to a number of issues relating to elections. First, the Prime Minister seemed to suffer a great deal of angst about the date of a proposed general election. He spent much time briefing journalists and talking about it. Secondly, within the past 24 hours, we have considered the problems associated with the former Secretary of State for Scotland and his involvement in the electoral process in Scotland and the technical issues associated with that.

The combination of those two things has given rise to concern in the minds of commentators and objective observers of the parliamentary and electoral scene, and it has been proposed that a Government should distance themselves as far as possible from the suggestion that the moving of election dates and the adjustment of election arrangements has anything to do with any potential party political advantage. That issue has become of much greater importance.

Into that very new situation come the concerns of the Electoral Commission that have been communicated to us within the past 24 hours. It says:

that is a movement—

The Commission makes another point that is particularly significant in the current context and I offer it to the Minister as a branch to be grasped so that a Government can show distance between themselves and any potential hint of suspicion of party political advantage that I know that he would do his best to avoid. The commission says that it

If those were my words and that was my argument, I grant that the Minister would do well to stand up and reject them and say that it was scaremongering on a grand scale. However, I put to him the context of the past 24 hours and of the past two to three weeks when decisions about elections have been so much in the public mind and it has even been suggested that opinion polls can sway a Prime Minister in making a decision about an election date. I know that that has been denied and rejected, so I cannot possibly make that argument from the Dispatch Box with any great conviction. However, the public perception could have been affected by the sense that party political motives could have come into consideration, so here is a cast-iron opportunity for the Minister and the Government to show how much has been learned.

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As a result of the Electoral Commission expressing doubt and concern about the six-month date, we quickly learned to revise the view that we put forward in the other place, which was that six months was about right. We have learned to take note of those concerns. If the time comes when we are in government and we need to use the provision that we are talking about, we would want to make sure that we stood well apart from the process, and that we were not contributing in any way to potential public suspicion that election dates might—forgive me for saying so—be chosen with party considerations in mind. We therefore accept the Electoral Commission’s view that the Bill is an opportunity for us to create that distance. We have no doubt that the decision to bring two dates together may have practical advantages, and we do not reject that as a solution, but the amendment is a belt-and-braces job to make sure that the decision is not clouded by party political considerations.

Andrew Gwynne rose—

Alistair Burt: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will support that opinion with all his vigour.

3.30 pm

Andrew Gwynne: Of course, as we learned recently, a week is a long time in politics; six months is almost an eternity. I think that the six-month date that the Lords decided on is correct, for all the reasons that the hon. Gentleman gives, but to reiterate an earlier point, the May 2004 local elections were of course moved at fairly short notice to coincide with the 10 June 2004 European elections. That caused some problems for electoral services, not least in north-west England, where we also had the benefit of an all-postal pilot. Six months is the right decision. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that a 12-month period, which is suggested in his amendment, would mean that the decision to move the May 2009 local elections to coincide with the June 2009 European elections would have to be taken before the May 2008 local elections, which just does not make sense?

Alistair Burt: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that, but I do not follow his argument. All that our amendment asks is that a notice period be given; I do not think that that has any bearing on the running of an election. I do not think that the public will be confused, because by and large the public will not be involved in that. They will simply recognise that a decision was taken, long before any changes took place—and as he rightly says, in the political environment, changes can occur very quickly—that might give those with the power to make such a decision a reason either to merge two dates or to separate them.

The Electoral Commission says that it would be a belt-and-braces approach to allow a rather longer period than was originally envisaged. I concede that if the Electoral Commission had not come up with the suggestion, I do not think that we would have run our amendment today, but we have become sensitive to public concerns on the subject. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman raising the issue of postal votes; we could talk about electronic voting, too, because I put it to
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him that those experiments have not been connected with a sense that all is well. Allegations have been raised that different forms of voting can be manipulated for party political purposes. A string of cases across the country has emphasised the risks. Our measure is designed to prevent that risk.

The hon. Gentleman is a good democrat with a seat on the council. In Committee, he spoke warmly about sitting on the council, and we all recognise that the fact that he does so is important in the democratic system; it gives him the good base from which he speaks. He will be even more concerned than the rest of us to make sure that no cloud of suspicion attaches to anyone if, for administrative purposes, a decision needs to be made to bring together the dates of local and EU elections. Our measure gives him the opportunity to cast out that cloud of suspicion, and to be on the right side in any benefit-of-the-doubt argument. That is the point that I put to the Minister.

Circumstances have changed, and it is not the Minister’s fault that he joins, and brings his talents to, the Department for Communities and Local Government just when there is a maelstrom of decisions to be taken on local elections, and election dates and the perils associated with them. However, it falls to him to make a quick decision and to say, “You’ve got me there; I agree absolutely. We’ll go for the belt-and-braces, 12-month option. Then we’ll be secure, and no one will raise any hint of suspicion.” The measure is a reasonable proposition. It is a simple amendment to the Bill, and I commend it to the House.

Andrew Stunell: First, let me say that the string of Lords amendments that we are considering represent good progress. They improve the legislation. I want to speak to Lords amendment No. 48, as the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) just did. The amendment is a great improvement on what was in the Bill before; the Minister is right about that. I recommend that he takes a look at our debate on Report on 22 May this year. I moved what was then amendment No. 265, which would have introduced a 12-month period for consideration. I did that on the basis of information supplied to me by the Electoral Commission. It said that it had concerns about the Bill as it was then drafted, and that it believed that a longer period was necessary. In fact, the Electoral Commission went beyond that and stated in a letter of 9 May last year:

That was the Electoral Commission’s view back then and, as we have just heard from the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire, that remains the commission’s view, even though the Government have moved some way towards meeting it.

On that occasion I did not press the matter to a vote because the Minister said that she was not aware of what the Electoral Commission was arguing and that she would give consideration to the point that had been raised. To be fair to the Government, they have given consideration and come back with an improvement, but it is not a sufficient improvement.

To some extent the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) and I share a borough, if
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not a political viewpoint. Surprisingly, when we worked on the Committee, we were quite often on the same side of the argument. I share his views about the 2004 elections and what we both faced as a consequence. However, when he reads it in H ansard , he will no doubt be a little ashamed of his argument that to give longer notice would confuse people. It does not stand up at all, does it?

It would be open to the Government to announce this week that when we get to June 2009, the local elections will be held on the same day as the European elections. In the back of our minds, I guess that most of us assume that in due course that announcement will be made. It would not make any difference to the electors next May or the following May that that piece of news was entrusted to them. I recognise the loyalty of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish in coming to the aid of his Front-Bench team, and his bravery in advancing an argument without any merit whatever.

The Lords amendment is a distinct improvement but not a sufficiently good improvement, in the view of the Electoral Commission. That is a body to which the Government rightly pay proper attention when it expresses its views. Sometimes we on the Opposition Benches think that the Electoral Commission gets it wrong, but the Government say, “No, the Electoral Commission comes first, never mind Opposition Members.” On this occasion, the Electoral Commission has come up with a straightforward, practical argument that it would be right for that announcement to be made earlier than the Government are proposing.

The Electoral Commission gave two separate reasons for that, one of which is the need for the planning of the election by returning officers throughout the country, which seems a legitimate one. The last thing the Government can afford is elections that are not properly organised and run, and local government does not need unduly stressed electoral returning officers.

The second reason that the Electoral Commission gave is that we must remove any suspicion that the change in date was motivated by party political considerations. The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire deployed those arguments. I deployed them back in May, so I shall not restate them to the House now, but I ask the Government, who have understood that there is a problem, to solve the problem rather than making a token move in the right direction. There can be no harm in it for them as a Government to have the legislation in the form that the Electoral Commission wants. Indeed, it protects them against any charge of a lack of integrity or of cheap party political decision-making.

The change is not difficult. Most of us would be unsurprised if those two election dates were brought together. Except in some quarters, it will not be a matter of great controversy, so why do the Government not say, “Yes, we accept that 12 months is the right period of time. We will give consideration to that, and some time before May 2008 we will announce whether we want the May 2009 local elections to be moved to match the European elections.” That surely verges on a no-brainer. I hope that when he responds, the Minister will accept the point.

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Mr. Syms: I also want to speak to amendment No. 48.

I do not like elections to be run on the same day. People vote for a particular reason; at a local level, they may vote because they want efficient council services and they perceive that their local authority is doing a bad or a good job. Trying to run local authority elections with European elections, because politicians perceive a turnout problem or whatever, is wrong and should not be encouraged.

I rather agree with the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell). We know when the European election will be and when the local elections are scheduled; there is a month’s difference. Most of us would presume that the Government would want to move the date, and that decision could be made now. The only argument, which I am addressing, is about whether it is good or bad to have the elections on the same day. That decision does not have to be made six months or a year in advance; at this precise moment, the decision could be taken that, as a matter of course, European parliamentary elections should be held on the same day as local elections. Votes for councils involved in election by thirds would be made in May, May and then June.

The argument deployed by the Electoral Commission—and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt)—can be as easily accepted as any other: the decision should be made earlier rather than later. Electoral returning officers would know what the situation was and all those who take holidays and wish to apply for postal votes would know with a great deal more certainty when the elections were coming.

Of course, it is possible that the day of the European and local elections would be a general election day. We might have three elections. That would not necessarily be insurmountable. Scotland’s problem, addressed by a statement in the House this week, is more to do with the bizarre single transferable vote system used north of the border than with the brilliant and perfect simplicity of the first-past-the-post system, which we dearly love. If we did have general, European and local elections on the same day, there would be a list system for the European election, so two systems would be deployed. I do not know what the Government’s thinking would be at that stage; I suspect that they would have to make a judgment about having the local and European elections on the same day. The general election judgment might be made rather later.

Mr. Gummer: If at all.

Mr. Syms: If at all; if we did not go to 2010.

As I said, elections should be, for example, clearly about local government or clearly about European issues. We have to acknowledge that these days people vote differently in different elections. That is terrible for us in politics, who like people always to vote for our parties in every election and on every occasion. However, there are Conservative voters who vote Liberal Democrat in local elections because they perceive local Liberal Democrats to be better, more active or more interested. People may vote for the UK Independence party or another party in a European election because they perceive that on a particular issue their views may be more in line with that party’s.

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Mr. Gummer: Very odd.

Mr. Syms: It is very odd. However, more volatility is one of the features of modern politics. People are starting to vote in different ways for different elections. One of the ways in which we in the political establishment try to get round that is by trying to ram everything on to the same day in the hope that there will be a sort of party list and that everybody will turn out to tick the correct box for each election. Things would also be easier for our activists. We all know how difficult it is to wind up our activists for a European election, particularly when it is done on regional lists; one feels rather lost in a constituency of 3 million or 4 million.

The political establishment rather like to run things together in the hope that they can keep party discipline, but the reality is that the electorate out there prefer to make their different choices, whether they do so for Ipswich or Suffolk, for who they want to represent them in the European Parliament, or for which Government they want. We have seen a greater spread of votes in that respect over recent years. I therefore generally deprecate running elections on the same day.

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