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Lord Goodhart: My Lords, I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, whether he has had the experience of canvassing over entryphones in London.

Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, I have canvassed in London and I recognise the particular difficulties it can present. However, perhaps I may move on to compare London with other areas in a moment. It is worth the effort to canvass because one then secures the agreement of the elector to turn out and vote. A leaflet delivered in the post does not have that effect.

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The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, seeks to emphasise the difference between London and other parts of the country. However, he overlooks the fact that London is viewed with a degree of suspicion in other parts of the country. I give way to the noble Earl.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. Given the logic of his remarks so far, the noble Lord appears to be seeking to abolish the freepost altogether. Is that what the noble Lord is saying?

Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, I am suggesting that we are reaching a point where we should consider that very proposition in the interests of stimulating a more active democracy. It may be that there is a stronger case to be made for state aid for political parties so that the parties themselves are more invigorated and able to persuade others to be active, rather than merely relying on a postal service.

The difference between London and the rest of the country must also be considered. I accept that London covers a large area and has an extremely large electorate; indeed, it is almost of regional proportions. However, the fact remains that in the great cities, if London gets a freepost, then everyone else will demand it. There would be no justice in denying that. We would then be compounding the error, if error there is.

I do not understand how people can say, "Well, we'll accept a freepost in London and deny it elsewhere". However, if we accept it elsewhere, we shall be embarking upon a very costly exercise. I know that noble Lords opposite say that businesses and commercial interests may be reflected in increased numbers of candidatures. I am surprised that that is not so. However, I do not believe that the entrepreneurial spirit is quite dead in Britain; it is only a matter of time.

I recall an article written by Mr Livingstone a long time ago, perhaps when he was rather more left-wing than he appears to be at the moment. In it he suggested that the Members for the industrial north spent their time in the wine bars and other such establishments of Westminster. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before the wine bars that we were once supposed to frequent will decide to put up their candidates. However, the fact remains that we are talking about substantial amounts of expenditure which could grow considerably.

One reason for my intervention is that in my area a report from Ofsted was recently rather critical of the education authority. The criticism was based largely on the inadequacy of our school buildings. For years in the early 1990s I argued for greater provision for school buildings. The government at that time, who were so keen on cutting public expenditure, allowed my local authority very small sums for that purpose and a backlog of need developed quite markedly. Indeed, I recall pointing out to the Minister at that time that we were allowed to spend £1 per head on the maintenance of our school buildings while across the south of England and in London the sum of at least £8 per head was provided. If we are to quibble about

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providing decently for our schools but can lavish vast expenditure on an increasingly pointless exercise, then we are not acting with the wisdom expected of this House.

4.1 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, I understand that this Government are in favour of encouraging democracy and greater participation in the election of representatives at all levels of democracy. I give them every benefit of the doubt in believing that that is true. Within limits, that involves encouraging people to stand whether or not they fall into the predestined idea of being born either a little Liberal or a little Conservative. The Socialist Party has already broken that tidy little one up, and it is open to other parties to do the same.

I speak on behalf of the Green Party, which already has a representative--a very able one--elected by London on a wide franchise as an MEP. We have a standing as a party in this city, as in this country, and I believe that we should be allowed and encouraged to take part in the democratic process. However, with an electorate of 5 million, the type of personal canvassing which the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, so rightly believed is good becomes very difficult with the limitations imposed by fax, answerphones and ex-directory numbers.

My party is putting up a candidate for mayor and candidates for the Assembly. We believe that we shall certainly succeed in getting Assembly candidates elected. That is done on a city-wide basis. We make no secret of the fact that there are parts of London where Green activists are thin on the ground. I am told by my party that one has to go quite a long way to find a member of the Green Party in Barking, for example. However, that does not mean that we should be denied the opportunity of canvassing those voters in Barking and persuading them to cast their votes for what we believe is an extremely good candidate and an extremely good party with an extremely good policy.

Unless we manage to overturn the regulations and make the Government think again on this point, the people who want to vote for the Green Party over a large part of London will be disenfranchised. I cannot believe that, ideally speaking, that is what the Government want. If they do not want it, the remedy is in their own hands. I hope that they will agree to give way on this important democratic point.

4.5 p.m.

Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, asked whether it was right that we should accept a freepost in London and deny it elsewhere. I believe that I am then entitled to ask whether it is right that we should have a freepost in Wales and deny it to the people of London. The truth is that his speech could have been made only by a representative of a large and powerful party wanting to deny the possibility of victory to those with fewer resources.

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I, too, have fought elections and have won them. Indeed, I took particular offence at the remarks of the Leader of another place when she suggested that an unelected House is not entitled to vote on these issues. I took offence not least because, if I am in this House at all, it is, I suppose, because of an ability to win elections and then to have served my country in the other place. Therefore, I feel absolutely entitled to stand up and say that it cannot be right that a Government, with the resources of the media and the ability to get the headlines, should seek to deny this very modest tool to those from other parties who may seek to stand.

The irony of the argument is this: I suspect that in part the object of the exercise is to place yet another obstacle in front of Mr Livingstone. Yet Mr Livingstone is the one person who probably will not be affected by it because he will attract publicity anyway. I have no doubt that, freepost or no freepost, he will probably be as well known in London as any other candidate. It seems to me much more likely that, if he wants to stand, he will get himself better known than the rather curious choice of the Labour Party as a result of the machinations seen in recent weeks.

I opened The Times this morning and turned to the article by Peter Riddell. I always turn to him because I feel that he is the only political correspondent who will find something good to say about the Labour Government and their actions. When it is not apparent to those outside, it will be to Mr Riddell. He has a charitable disposition when it comes to the actions of the Labour Administration, although he seems rather less charitable about the person he describes as,

    "the hapless and hopeless Lord Bassam of Brighton".

Of course, I would not be so unkind. However, Mr Riddell is normally charitable to Labour. Yet today he has written:

    "Any second chamber worth the name should act as a check on the elected chamber on constitutional issues".

He then sets out the arguments almost as powerfully as they were advanced by my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish and from the Liberal Democrat Benches. He points out that if the Government are defeated tonight there will be plenty of opportunity to come forward with an alternative so that the elections can be held. He concludes:

    "They should listen, to avoid making an even greater mess of the elections than they have".

I must say that I am not particularly concerned if they make a mess of the choice of their own candidate. If they do that, they are likely to get a bloody nose from the electorate.

As I observed in the House last night during the debate on Welsh affairs, I have a great respect for the ability of the British electorate to give any arrogant and inadequate government a bloody nose. I suspect that the electorate will do that and that the Labour Government will suffer as a consequence of their activities in recent weeks; and that they will suffer in London as they have already suffered in Wales where they were given a sharp lesson in the assembly elections and an even sharper lesson in the Ceredigion by-election.

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But the fact that the Government will be taught a sharp lesson by the electorate is not an adequate reason for this House not to do its undoubted duty to protect the people of this country from the arrogance of an over-weaning Government who are determined to use their weight, authority, money and resources to win elections when the choice should be offered to the people on terms of equality.

4.11 p.m.

Lord Borrie: My Lords, we are currently debating the expenses order to which the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, has moved an amendment. We are debating also the election rules.

During the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, he kindly permitted me to intervene to ask under what provision of the Greater London Authority Act a rule of the kind for which he is asking--namely, one asking for freepost delivery--is permitted. He may well know that there is no such provision. I do not refer to the debates which we have had on the Representation of the People Bill, or, indeed, to those which we may have next Tuesday on that Bill. But it seems to me that unless there is some provision in the Greater London Authority Act of which I have not yet heard which may permit the Government to do what he is asking to be done in today's debate, that part of the debate or the initiation of his amendment is misconceived.

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