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Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord for giving way. Does he accept the point that I believe I have made twice today; namely, that this question of primary legislation, whether it confers the power to do this or that, is totally beside the point?
Lord Peston: My Lords, it is not totally beside the point. However, it is beside the point to raise the question in the first place on a matter which is not before us. The issue before us is whether your Lordships should vote on a matter of secondary legislation when many of us were under the impression that we simply did not do it. As far as I know it does not follow logically that because you can do something you should do it. I ask noble Lords to reflect on that point.
The notion that the whole of parliamentary democracy depends on a free mail shot is a contender for the most absurd proposition of this Session so far. However, that is by the way. As I say, were we to debate how your Lordships' House should behave in the present set-up, I, for one, would say that we ought to approach secondary legislation in a new way. I repeat that it would be a new way. What the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, and the Liberal Democrats propose to do is a new departure and constitutes something completely different from what we did when we were the principal opposition. I believe that the proposal would imperil your Lordships' House in terms of its reasonableness in dealing with these matters.
Therefore if we debate this and if your Lordships come to the conclusion that they wish to proceed in this way in the future I will support that. I am not sure that my friends on the Front Bench will be that pleased because governments hate anybody doing anything about secondary legislation. I think we should; but I certainly do not believe that we should be doing anything like that on this occasion in an ad hoc manner, as I have said, simply for what I regard as a rather party political point.
The issue of maintaining the traditional right of all candidates in major elections to have one of their leaflets delivered at public expense is the heart of the matter: democratic choice or centralised control. In all large-scale elections in Britain in modern times candidates have been able to have free delivery by the Post Office of leaflets to help them get their message across directly to the voters. This is a large-scale election: more than 5 million people can cast their votes. It is the same electorate as that which elected eight Members of the European Parliament to represent London last June. Candidates then were collectively entitled to one free mailshot during their campaign.
I shall not pretend that there is any great enthusiasm on the part of the recipients to receive literature from candidates. I cannot imagine many people waiting impatiently behind their letterboxes, eager for the party leaflets to drop through their door. However, when the Government take away their right to hear directly from their candidates on such important issues in this way, I suspect the public will become even more cynical about the whole political process than they are at present.
The Government are trying to suggest that the election of a mayor and an Assembly for London is just another local election. I do not believe that this equates with the facts. Local elections will continue to be held in London for borough council elections, and there is no local councillor in Britain who will have anything like the power that the mayor of London will have. The present advertising campaign does not suggest that this is a local election. "The biggest job in London", as it describes the position of mayor, is not that of a local councillor. Indeed, if it was only a local election I am quite sure that the Labour Party would not have used the electoral college system to choose its candidate, which has caused it so much trouble. Very often I have heard that the justification for the Labour Party using the same system to elect a mayoral candidate as it used to elect its party leader, and indeed its party leader in Wales, is exactly because the London elections are not merely local elections. It does not require deposits such as the £10,000 which is required to stand as a candidate for mayor of London. So we are dealing with a large-scale regional election--an election the size of which justifies a free mailing.
The issue has again been raised as to whether this mailshot could be abused for possible commercial advantage. The standard Post Office regulations--I am very familiar with them--are very specific on this matter. They say that communications must contain matter relating to the election only and that a candidate must give a proof of his copy to the Royal
Can the cost be justified? The Government's initial rather absurd estimate of the cost has halved in approximately a fortnight, so that perhaps within a week I hope they may actually agree that the cost of allowing all candidates to have a leaflet delivered together will actually be rather less than the cost of their own advertising campaign, which simply urges people to vote in the election. The independent Electoral Reform Society suggests that one envelope containing all the free postings would cost something between £2 million and £4 million. That compares with the £4 million that I understand is within the Government's present budget to cover the fact that the elections are taking place.
I have a simpler suggestion. Why not deliver all the leaflets with the poll cards? The poll cards have to be delivered to voters, advising of the date of the poll, the polling station, the hours of opening and so on. In real terms the additional cost would simply be that of collating the literature and of the rubber bands that would be required. In any event, the costs of this operation are really only a payment from one part of the Government to another, namely the Post Office. The heart of this argument is fair, free and democratic competition. At a time when we are all concerned about lack of participation in the democratic process, I do not believe that there should be a weakening of that process by withdrawing healthy competition between candidates which results from free mailing. We should also bear in mind that it is especially necessary for large parts of London where many homes are inaccessible to private callers.
The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, what wonderful support from the noble Lord, Lord Williams! I thank him. I am always amused to see, when the Government are in deep trouble, that they call upon the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, to try to help them out. I was not going to make jokes about the "hapless Lord Bassam of Brighton" because it is a bit unfair but, I am terribly sorry, I could not resist it.
It seems to me that the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, made one fundamental historical error. He said that constitutions should not be made on the hoof. The whole point about the British constitution is that it has been solidly made on the hoof by people inventing precedents which did not exist to enhance the liberty of the subject. The on-the-hoof method of constitution making in our case has worked sublimely well.
That leads me to what happened with the last House of Lords Act. That was constitution making on the hoof--and an actually fairly bruised, unshod hoof at that--in that the Government did not then think of what would happen as a result of getting rid of all of us. What happened was that this House now has
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