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Lord McNally: Can I add d'Hondt to the list?

8.45 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: This is therefore a serious election. While the powers are certainly different, I suggest that it is on a par in democratic terms with the elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. They in themselves are of course different; the Scottish Executive has far more powers than the Welsh Executive, which in turn has more powers than the Northern Ireland Assembly. They are not all the same, which goes for London too.

The mayor's responsibilities are reasonably limited, but he will be a voice for London. Knowing the way the system works, I suggest that he will be a voice on a range of issues, including those which do not come directly under his responsibility. If the Government doubt that, I invite them to take a look at what the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly are already doing. They venture occasionally into areas that are not their direct responsibility, much to the annoyance of Dr John Reid, the Secretary of State for Scotland and even more to the annoyance of his deputy, Mr Brian Wilson.

We are discussing important elections. I do not want to hear from the Minister that this is just another local government election. It clearly is not. The Government have created a structure entirely different from local authorities.

The Government are not going to allow free post in London. That seems absolutely amazing. Free post is allowed at parliamentary elections. It was allowed at the elections for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly. We allowed considerable free post, because we believe that it is right and proper that every candidate is able to send one communication to each elector, or each household--it rather depends how the candidate wants to play it--in an election of the importance of Parliament, of the Scottish Parliament, of the Welsh Assembly or of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

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I submit that it is equally important that the candidates for mayor and those for the seats in the London assembly have the same right. It seems amazing that free post has been given in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but not to the mayor with an electorate of 5 million-odd and to the 14 constituencies, which have electorates far greater than any other in this country.

Without the free post it will be impossible for the candidates to reach all the electorate. It will certainly be grossly unfair to anyone who decides to stand in a constituency as an independent candidate without the backing of a party machine. I believe that the election expenses have been set reasonably high, but, frankly, I am told by the people who have carried out the calculation that if a political party had to pay for postage to the electorate, it would be exceeding the limit without doing anything else. The election expenses level will be swallowed up entirely if there is no free post and the parties are obliged to use the postal system.

The reason we have a free post is that we believe it right that every properly nominated candidate should be able to send one communication to the elector. If the Bill is about involving the electorate in the elections--which is, after all, what we are continually told--then surely the one thing which will encourage electors to vote will be if they receive communications from the candidates standing for election.

I look forward to the Minister's reply. At Second Reading I suggested to the House, slightly tongue-in-cheek, that it was a "Stop Ken" manoeuvre, designed to stop Ken whichever way it works. If Ken decides to stand as an independent because of the rigged ballot by the Labour Party for its candidate, he will be absolutely tied hand and foot if he cannot communicate with every elector. Frankly, he will probably manage to do it quite successfully via the media. Unless the Government propose a blanket ban on him appearing on radio and television, they may find their desires slightly frustrated.

Even if he wins the Labour nomination, I suggested that they would then tell him that they did not have enough money to fight a campaign of the kind he wanted and that they could not possibly pay for all the postage because they had a major election to fight next year and he would have to go out into the highways and byways of London to try to persuade major donors to give him a good deal of money to carry out his own postal delivery. In that way, he would be stopped. Anyone--or, rather more specifically, the Conservative candidate--would be preferable to Mr Livingstone, and would therefore win; and that would be all right. Anything to stop "our Ken".

I do not suppose that that is the reason. I cannot believe that Downing Street would be so Machiavellian as to try to use the refusal of a free postal service to stop Mr Livingstone. Can I? I am not sure. But what I do know is that it is an insult to the people of London who have been given the mayor with much trumpeting by the Government--my goodness, trumpeting from here to yonder, as they say--that this

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was a terrific step forward, that democratic accountability would return to this great city of London, and so on. But at the end of the day, they say, "Ah well, we are not going to go that far. We are not going to give the candidates the right to send out their election leaflets by free post".

I can assure the Committee that when it came to the Scottish parliamentary elections in the constituency of Glasgow, Govan, which is certainly not very big but it is where I live, the candidates--there were a number of them and not just from the main parties--all sent me pieces of paper, which were quite interesting, to try to encourage me to vote for them. Not only that, but the top-up candidates in each party were able to send a piece of paper extolling the virtues of voting for them with my second vote, whatever I did with my first vote. There were probably more candidates in Govan than in most other constituencies in Scotland, but there were a good many candidates at those elections. I am sure that the cost of sending all those pieces of paper in Scotland was not dissimilar to what the cost would be in London. If the Government are serious about this reform in London, they should do what they have done in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and allow a free post.

I have attached this issue to my amendment because I thought that that was a sensible way to flag up this problem. Without the Bill we shall be coming to two Prayers which I have tabled. Prayers, as Members of the Committee will know, are slightly more dramatic and "sudden death" outings. I hope that by doing it in this way, even if the Government feel that they cannot accept my amendment today, we have at least warned them that this is a matter which we take extremely seriously. They can either bring forward an amendment to the Bill at Report stage, if they do not like my amendment, or they can take away the subject of my Prayer, before they get down on their knees next week, and amend their Motion. Either way, I think that I can speak for my allies in this matter on the Liberal Democrat Benches and for my noble friends. We really do feel that we have to draw the Government up short on what we think is a major error on their part. Knowing their desire to have a large turn-out at these elections and at all other elections, they will, I hope, reconsider this matter. I trust that we shall hear from the Minister that they are seriously reconsidering it and that we can have some expectation that either via the Prayer or via amendments to the Bill a decision will be taken by the Government to allow a free post for these important elections. I beg to move.

Lord Goodhart: I have to tell the Minister that we on these Benches are four square behind the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, on this matter. There is one minor technical problem with the amendment which I shall mention simply to get it out of the way. The amendment proposes that the mailshot for the London members should be piggy-backed on to the mailshots that are sent out on behalf of the constituency members. That seems perfectly reasonable because it means that the parties will be able to send out two mailshots--one for the mayor and

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one for the candidates for the assembly--rather than three. We accept that three is unreasonable. But it creates the problem that, as the amendment is drafted, independent candidates to be London-wide members of the assembly will not get a free mailshot. That would be wrong.

The right to the free mailshot has applied, so far as my researches show, to all parliamentary elections at least since the passing of the Representation of the People Act 1948. It has also applied, as the noble Lord said, to the Scottish elections, the Welsh elections and the Northern Ireland elections, and to the European elections on every occasion on which European elections have been held by popular vote. It does not apply to local government elections for reasons which I shall explain in a few moments. The fact that it does not apply to local government elections provides only an extremely flimsy excuse for the Government.

The Government's first proposals in this matter were "no free mailshot" and a very high spending limit of £900,000. A mailshot costs at least £400,000. So a £900,000 limit would have made it possible to send out a mailshot, but no party other than Labour or Conservative could have afforded it--indeed, probably not the Conservative Party if the reports of the state of its finances are anything like true. What could be the reason for that? Could it be that if Mr Livingstone were running as an independent he would be unlikely to raise enough money to afford a mailshot, although the official Labour Party candidate would? That is history because the Government's present proposal is that there should be a limit of £425,000 on a candidate for mayor; £35,000 for each constituency candidate and £330,000 for individual or list candidates for London members. In effect, that means that no one can provide a mailshot. I suppose that to some extent that levels the playing field, but it is in no way an adequate answer. It is not enough to have a level playing field. We need to know why there should be a mailshot.

We need mailshots because candidates need to be able to communicate with their voters. In local elections, we do not need a free post. Wards are small. Outside the city of Birmingham, which for some historic reason has very large wards, few, if any, wards have more than 10,000 voters. It is therefore possible for a candidate in town or suburban wards to deliver addresses in person within two or three days, except perhaps in thinly populated rural areas. In London elections, it would clearly be not remotely possible for any single candidate to deliver, and it would be impossible to rely on volunteers to achieve hand delivery of a leaflet. Even if there were willing volunteers, more and more Londoners live in blocks of flats, behind locked doors and entry phones. That is true both of council and trust housing and of private housing. As someone who has canvassed in three parliamentary elections in London and in local elections in London, I can say that it is quite exceptionally difficult either to canvass or to get leaflets to people who live behind locked doors and entry phones. For a very large number of Londoners,

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the only information about the election which they receive is the poll card and the free mailshot. It is now being proposed that there should be no free mailshot.

This is an extremely important election. It is the first-ever direct election for the office of mayor that has been held in any city in this country. It is the first election for many years for an elected body which represents the whole of London. It is a new system of voting. The mayor will have limited but important powers. If ever there was an election where voters need information about what is going on, this is it. If we end up with a percentage turn-out for this election in the 20s or 30s, it will be a disaster for democracy.

Moreover, the Government's proposals mean that a high proportion of voters will receive only the poll card and nothing else through their door. They can, of course, read about the election in the press. But what will that tell them? It will tell them plenty about the misadventures with the truth of the noble Lord, Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare, plenty about Steven Norris's misadventures with women and plenty about Millbank's efforts to keep Ken Livingstone off the ballot. But about the issues and the other candidates, there will be nothing. Even Susan Kramer, our own excellent candidate for mayor, receives almost no publicity, and minor party candidates receive none whatever. Yet these are not fringe candidates. With the additional member system of voting that is in place, the Liberal Democrats will certainly get seats in the assembly, and it is possible, if not probable, that other parties will as well--as indeed happened in the European elections.

The Government may claim that they are worried about the abuse of freemail for advertising. That did not happen in the European elections; nor to my knowledge has it happened in any election so far. Anyway, the problem could be dealt with by means of regulations prohibiting the circulation of leaflets which amount to commercial advertising.

The refusal to provide a free post is deeply anti-democratic. There will be an election in which millions of electors will take part. It is the first election of a new body under a new electoral system. It is an election in which many electors are inaccessible to the candidates. Yet the Government propose to deny the right to the one thing that guarantees the parties a chance to state their case to every elector who is willing to read it. This a very serious issue. I must warn the Government that we shall use every possible method to obtain the right to a free mailshot, including support for the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, when he moves his Prayer next week.

9 p.m.

Earl Russell: The arrangements for informal co-operation between parties and the management of business are loosely, accurately, if incompletely, known as the usual channels. They deserve a great deal more credit than they usually receive, because when they work well there is no news. For a very large part of the time they work very well indeed. They are, of course, particularly important for any of the political

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rules of engagement, and above all for the rules for the conduct of democratic elections. That those rules should command general consent is a vital part of the legitimacy of our government.

One cannot, of course, always demand that everyone consents to absolutely everything. That would be to give to every party a veto on any arrangement, however unreasonably it might be exercised. But it is legitimate to expect of any democratic election that it should have the assent for its rules not only of the Government but of at least one significant opposition party, preferably including the Official Opposition.

Above all, in a democratic state it is thoroughly undesirable that it should be possible for a government to lay down the rules for the conduct of an election without the consent of any other party whatever. When that happens, we are somewhere near the top of a very slippery slope indeed.

I have made inquiries of those whose political memories are a great deal longer than mine--including the Electoral Reform Society, of which I have the honour to be president--as to how many such cases there have been since the war. As the debate began, we on these Benches were still discussing whether the number of cases since the war is one or none. It is certainly a very small number.

The consultation paper for the regulations was published just before Christmas, with the consultation concluding on 4th January--itself a slightly uncomfortable timetable. It marks the concern about this issue that the timetable was met by every opposition party. At a press conference on 12th January the initial regulations were condemned by the Conservative Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, the Electoral Reform Society, and Charter 88. That is a startling line-up.

In response, the Government made significant concessions, which are welcome as far as they go. They reduced the mayor's proposed expenses from £975,000 to £420,000, and those of the list and constituency candidates in proportion. But in making that concession without the free post, they brought in the classic law of unintended consequence. They inadvertently shot themselves in the foot.

According to the Government's own estimate, the cost of a free post to contact each individual elector is £750,000. The cost to contact each household is £420,000--and £420,000 is now the maximum possible sum that mayoral candidates are allowed to spend. So, were they to make a postal delivery to each household, they would be able to do nothing else whatever, even paying their phone bill.

That is on a par with the classic story of Jimmy Carter's signature. In 1976, while running for President, Jimmy Carter discovered that letters from the President were not always seen or signed by the President. He was shocked to the core by that information. He delivered an election pledge that, if he were elected, every letter from the President would be personally signed by himself. Once he had been elected, his staff slowly and painfully persuaded him

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that fulfilling that pledge would take him precisely 24 hours a day. The Government have landed themselves in the pitfall of Jimmy Carter's signature.

I have also made inquiries about what is the greatest number of electors a candidate has had to address previously without a free post. I have put down a Question for Written Answer. It has been down for 12 days and has not yet received an Answer. If I am mistaken, no doubt the Minister will take the chance to enlighten me, but my information is that the highest number candidates have been expected to address without a free post was in the GLC elections: it was between 70,000 and 80,000. The leap from those figures to over 5 million is a fairly steep step. The idea of personally contacting 5 million electors lacks credibility. As my noble friend Lord Goodhart reminded us, in many parts of London it is extremely difficult to contact electors any other way.

The Kensington by-election of 1989, in which my noble friend was the first person to stand for Parliament as a Liberal Democrat, is still known in party circles as the "answerphone election", because that was the only way it was possible to make contact with the voters. What is more, free post puts candidates on an equality with each other. Since there is inevitably great inequality in many aspects of any election contest, that there should be one event based on equality in the political decathlon which leads to election is no more than good sense.

The Minister may reply that this is a local election and therefore there is no free post. But local elections have no deposits, whereas there are deposits here. The Green Party claims that those deposits cost it an arm and a leg. If deposits are to be introduced, the Government have already departed from the comparatively safe ground of arguing that this election is treated exactly like any normal election. They have also introduced very tight rules for nominations. Candidates must produce 10 electors from each borough in London. Therefore, one cannot do it simply on the basis of strength in some boroughs.

As my noble friend pointed out, there is plenty of room for negotiation on these points in future. However, the rules as to spending limits and deposits have been taken from national elections and the rules as to free post have been taken from local elections. These regulations are properly described as a genetically modified organism. As hybrids go, they are not particularly successful.

The Government's concerns about free post have not proved widely convincing. I have repeated them to a good many people who ask why the Government have taken this position and have been met with widespread incredulity. The result is that conspiracy theories, some of which we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, multiply round the political gossip circle. I have no idea whether any, or even all, of those conspiracy theories are false. It is perfectly possible that we are dealing simply with the Treasury refusing to authorise the spending of even the last few pence. There is nothing in the world as good as the British Treasury at spoiling the ship for a

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ha'p'orth of tar. But if it really is the position of the Government that they cannot afford free post, then if they could not afford to set up a Greater London authority, they should not have done it.

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