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Lord Whitty: Will not the noble Lord accept that the Watford experiment, if such it be, is possible only under the provisions of the Bill which is still before the House? The noble Lord is asking us to produce secondary legislation for which we have no primary power. Not only could it not be under the powers under which these orders are proposed, but there are no primary powers for us to introduce a freepost. That is the point that I am making and it is the point which the House must seriously consider in making a judgment on the noble Lord's Motion.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I am puzzled about that, because I cannot remember any such powers in the Scotland and Wales Bills, and I spent a lot of time on them. I suspect that there are provisions elsewhere in the various Representation of the People Acts which could be used if the draftsmen had used their ingenuity and if the Government wished. But I have given the Government the opportunity; the Representation of the People Bill is before Parliament and we do not need to argue this issue any longer. The vehicle exists because we can do something about the problem in that Bill.
Last week, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, made some amazing claims about the cost of this. First, he conjured up 40 candidates for mayor and a cost of £30 million; frivolous candidates will rush forward in their tens in order to take advantage of the freepost facilities for a deposit of only £10,000 plus the cost of printing the leaflets. There is no evidence that that has and will happen. Let us take the European elections which were held throughout Scotland. Did anyone pay a deposit and stand in those elections to gain freepost advertising? Did freepost come through my letterbox advertising the local haggis, tatties and neeps restaurant and the local kilt outfitter? It did not; nor did such things happen in London when the European elections were held throughout the city.
Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I agreed that that did not happen in the most recent European elections, but perhaps he will cast his mind back to those elections in 1994. In London North, there was a candidate whose main claim to fame seemed to be that he ran, I am sure, a good driving school at the bottom of the Stroud Green Road, which is near to where I live. That was his claim to fame as a candidate for the European Parliament. He obtained freepost and publicity on the back of it. That is precisely the kind of candidate that the Government are talking about.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, if the noble Lord was so worried about that, why did he not persuade his colleagues not to have a freepost at the recent European elections? He does not seem to have
I turn to the cost. The European parliamentary elections freepost cost £21.5 million. That was for the whole of the UK. In Scotland, the total cost for two drops--one for the first-past-the-post candidate and one for the top-up list--cost about £4.5 million. I extrapolate that to about £6 million for London. Therefore, I am afraid that the argument is bogus.
If the Government were really worried about frivolous candidates, first, they would have produced more than only one example and, secondly, they would have done something about it in the elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the last European elections and--dare I say it?--they would now be doing something about the next series of elections.
In any case, although I am not an expert on this, I understand that the Post Office has some pretty firm rules about what it takes as election addresses and what can appear on the freepost leaflets. I do not believe that the argument about cost and frivolous candidates works, especially when we have it in other elections. The Government spent money on the freepost because they knew that in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the European Parliament it was the right thing to do. It is the way to increase interest in elections, to increase turn-out, and to ensure fairness between the parties--all the reasons that led the post-war Labour government to pass the 1948 Act introducing the freepost. It is just as well that the current lot were not in power then or there would still not be a freepost.
But I should not be surprised: fairness has not been at the forefront since 1997 as regards elections. In the Scottish referendum there were two questions instead of one in order to try and ensure the result. The Welsh referendum was held a week later to try to persuade the Welsh to follow the Scots. There was the closed list for the European elections--I had better not remind your Lordships about that--in order to keep control. There was the method of voting for the Welsh First Minister which was gerrymandered to ensure that Alun Michael got the job, but not Rhodri Morgan who was the choice of the Labour membership in Wales. Just last week there was the same gerrymandering to make sure that Ken Livingstone--perhaps I should not say that name too loudly in case it disturbs the Government--the choice of the Labour members in London, did not win that election. Here we are again. It is all so logical. You fix the Labour candidate by fixing Livingstone; then, if that is not enough and just in case he stands, you fix him again by having no freepost and then you threaten that if your Lordships just say that they are a bit worried about it, you fix the House of Lords.
Lord Mishcon: My Lords, the noble Lord is always so courteous in giving way. I wonder whether he would care to add to his history of democratic events the destruction of the London County Council by a Conservative government because Labour kept on winning in London. Then there was the destruction of
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I was going to turn to that and say that that is not an argument against not having freepost in these elections. If the noble Lord believes that it is such a terrific thing and is so glad to see it coming back to London, he should want the fullest participation and that involves a freepost.
I want to examine the argument that somehow your Lordships' House has no right to deal with these matters. I refer first to the convention against voting on secondary legislation. It was not a convention, but an agreement between the Labour and Conservative Front Benches. It never included the Liberal Democrats, as no doubt they will tell us, and it never included the Cross Benches.
Secondly, and much, much more important, is the fact that this is a new House. It is the House that Tony built. It is the House governed by the Jay doctrine. Perhaps I may remind your Lordships of what the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal said in the House Magazine on 27th September last. She said:
Moved, as an amendment to the Motion, to leave out all the words after "That" and insert "this House declines to approve the draft order laid before it on 3rd February and calls on Her Majesty's Government to lay an order which provides that candidates are allowed one freepost delivery per household".--(Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish).
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, the freepost in parliamentary elections goes back a very long time. In fact, it goes back further than 1948. It was introduced by Section 33 of the Representation of the People Act 1918, following a Speaker's Conference in 1917. I should like to quote from a speech made in the debate on that section in the other place by Herbert Samuel, a future leader of the Liberal Party. He said:
We need a freepost for the sake of democracy. Candidates must be able to get their message over to electors. There are, of course, measures to eliminate frivolous candidates. Substantial deposits are required for the London elections. Candidates for mayor must get the signatures of 10 supporters in each London borough. But the elections will be contested by serious candidates of minor parties. Certainly the Greens, who won a London seat in the European elections, may very well do so again.
Without the freepost, candidates, particularly from the minor parties, cannot get their messages across. The electoral areas are enormous. For the mayor and for the London-wide assembly candidates, the electorate will comprise 5 million people. For the 14 assembly constituencies, the average electorate will be more than 350,000. As I pointed out in the debate on the Representation of the People Bill, more and more Londoners live in blocks of flats with locked doors and entryphones and more and more Londoners have ex-directory telephone numbers. These people cannot be reached by the ordinary methods of canvassing and leaflet delivery; neither can we rely on media coverage of the election. Even we in the Liberal Democrats, with an excellent candidate, control of three London boroughs and strong representation in many other London boroughs, get hardly any media coverage. What hope do the minor parties have of getting a mention, let alone an explanation of what they stand for?
Freepost is the best method that we have of making sure that candidates can get their message across to any elector willing to go to the trouble of picking a leaflet off the floor by the front door and reading it.
But the importance of the freepost is not due only to the vast size of the electorate and the inaccessibility of electors. As the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, has pointed out, this is a new type of election. It is the first-ever direct election for an executive mayor. We have new systems of voting unfamiliar to the people of London for both mayor and assembly members. There are several parties in this election with a serious chance of winning Assembly seats. The parties need to tell the electors not only what their programme is, but how to vote for them when they get to the polling station.
If ever there was an election for which freepost was essential, this is it. Yet the Government propose to deny the electors of London the right to the information they need in order to make an informed choice. That is a matter of concern not only for the Opposition parties, but for many individuals in the Labour Party as well.
I refer to the debate on these regulations in the other place on 15th February, a week ago. Three of the most powerful speeches in favour of freepost came from the Labour Benches. They were made by Diane Abbott, John McDonnell and Audrey Wise. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, has already quoted one extract from Diane Abbott's speech. I should like to quote another:
Why do the Government object to the freepost? In part, of course, it is for the unspoken reason of the candidate whose name cannot be spoken, Mr Ken Livingstone. However, what the Government say is that it will be too expensive. In Committee on the Representation of the People Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, spoke of a cost somewhere between £15 million and £30 million. That is absurd. The whole cost of the freepost in 659 constituencies for the 1997 general election was £20 million. As the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, said, the cost for the 1999 European elections was £21.5 million. Head for head, that would work out at around £2 million for London.
I accept that that figure may be an underestimate because there may be more candidates for mayor in London than the average number of candidates for parliamentary elections. However, there would not be many more and certainly no more than are able to afford not only the deposit but the much more substantial costs of printing a large number of leaflets. On top of that, there are ways acceptable to us in which the cost could be substantially reduced. My noble friend Lord Rennard will explain those later in the debate.
The Government have said that a freepost might be abused. Did any abuse occur in the 1999 European elections when any independent candidate could have obtained a freepost to cover the whole of London? No. In fact, there could not be any abuse because, as my noble friend Lord Rennard pointed out in the debate last week, Post Office regulations prevent a freepost being used for advertising.
The Government then say that, of course, this is a local election and a freepost is not available for such elections. I detect here the hand of the Treasury. "Give way on London", says the Treasury, "and the parties will be asking for a freepost for mayoral elections in Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle or Eatanswill". There is a good case for saying that there should be a freepost available for mayoral elections in other large cities, but that is a different case from the one we are making today. The fact is that the London elections are not local elections; they are regional elections. London is not just a city; it is a region of its own. The 14 Assembly constituencies--the smallest unit in these elections--are five times the size of the average Westminster constituency. They are perhaps 100 times the size of the average local government ward. So these are not local elections in any ordinary sense.
The Government's position amounts to saying, "These are local elections and therefore local election rules apply." You cannot turn an elephant into a rabbit by calling it a rabbit; that is what the Government are trying to do. The final irony, as the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, pointed out, is Watford. If these rules go through for 4th May this year, we shall have a freepost in the local elections for Watford but not for the metropolis of London. That is an absurdity if ever there was one.
The final argument put by the Government is that it is undemocratic and unconstitutional for your Lordships' House to reject these rules. I believe that argument to be the weakest of all. The Labour Party has produced a travesty of democracy in the way it has selected its candidate for the London mayoral elections and the Labour Government have thereby forfeited the right to preach to your Lordships' House about democracy.
On 20th October 1994, your Lordships' House affirmed that it has unfettered freedom to vote on any subordinate legislation submitted for its consideration. That Motion was moved by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, who, I believe, intends to speak in today's debate. The
Your Lordships' House was once described as, "Mr Balfour's poodle". Since the House of Lords Act last year, the present House is no one's poodle. In defence of democracy, your Lordships' House should be not a poodle, but a Rottweiler. That is why, on behalf of my party, I have great pleasure in supporting the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish.
Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, for reminding us of the history of the freepost. However, the one obvious lesson to be learnt from that history is that, since the freepost was introduced--and most strikingly over the past 30 to 40 years--turn-out for elections has markedly diminished. Absurdly low polls were secured in last year's local and European elections. Furthermore, I have been reminded by my noble friend Lord Islwyn of the extremely low turn-out for the Welsh elections.
If we are really concerned about democracy, then we must conclude that it needs to be robust and generated by activity at a political level. I believe that we have reached the point where the freepost is seen as a replacement for positive political activity. In many wards and in constituencies, people see the freepost as an alternative to old-style canvassing. In many parts of Britain, that form of old-style canvassing in support of both national and local elections has diminished remarkably over the past two decades. If we are to secure higher turn-outs, we need people to knock on doors and deliver leaflets.
I have fought many elections over the past 30 years. However, over recent years I have found that the leaflet that is handed in to the elector at the door receives more attention than the one that comes through the letterbox with the post. The fact is that today there is a great deal more junk mail than used to be the case. The manifesto submitted by the postman tends to be thrown into the wastebin along with the junk mail that many of us deplore. I give way to the noble Lord.
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