Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, I declare an interest in that I have been selected by my party as a prospective candidate for the Greater London Assembly. There has been a good deal of discussion within the Association of London Government, which I chair, about the issue and the principle of freepost. All of the parties represented on that association have taken the view that freepost would be appropriate for this election because, to use the words of my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister, this is a local authority that is unlike any other. It would not necessarily set a precedent of that kind. But the principle of freepost has to be seen as part of a package with the other arrangements which would exist in terms of the way in which an election is conducted.

22 Feb 2000 : Column 168

What is unfortunate about the debate is that we have not looked at those other elements of the package. Clearly, a cost is associated with having freepost. However, the parallel issues about the threshold which enables people to stand have not been addressed by the opposition parties today.

We have heard some strange arguments which suggest that somehow a freepost is the only bastion that exists to protect a proper democracy and that somehow it is the only thing that enables small parties to flourish and to operate in an electoral system. The reality is that freepost is not free for the parties. It is some time since I was engaged in a parliamentary election. That was as a chair of a constituency party. However, if I remember correctly, the activities associated with a freepost require the printing of the material itself, the enveloping and addressing of that material, and the bundling of that material into the precise order that the Post Office requests, which is not necessarily an order which any of us would immediately recognise as being a logical way of putting it together. That is a quite complicated process which requires a substantial degree of resources and organisation. Those will not be readily available across London to a party which merely creates itself and has only a small membership, but it is a substantial consideration. A freepost is healthy for democracy, but let us not pretend that it is the bastion of democracy.

I found it surprising to be told by one noble Lord that we were taking away from the public the right to hear directly from candidates. That is a very strange statement. There will be a whole variety of ways in which the public will hear directly from candidates. I, too, have a nostalgic belief in the traditional process of knocking on doors and speaking directly to electors. But the mass media will be the method by which people hear from candidates, particularly in the mayoral election. So let us not get too excited about this. A freepost is helpful for the conduct of democracy, but it is not an essential requirement.

The issue of frivolous candidates concerns me. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, brushed aside the issue of a north London candidate in the European elections in 1994. I accept that north London is a long way from Scotland and that he may not have been familiar with the circumstances. The argument put by some noble Lords that there are rules that would prevent people promoting their business, for example, goes only so far. If one's claim to be an appropriate candidate for the post of London mayor or for membership of the European Parliament is that one runs an extremely successful driving school located in the Stroud Green Road, that is in effect a way of promoting that driving school. I do not suggest that that was the sole motivation of the candidate in this case--

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Has he not just destroyed his own argument? He started by saying how much effort was required to take advantage of

22 Feb 2000 : Column 169

freepost. Is the truth of the matter that the only frivolous candidate he fears is Ken Livingstone, which is what all this is about?

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, my point is slightly more complicated. I am suggesting that if a candidate who runs a commercial undertaking believes, perhaps erroneously, that the business can be promoted through this process, that candidate will put resources into ensuring that the leaflets are printed, bundled up and enveloped, and that the requirements of the Post Office are met. What one gets is a free postal delivery instead of having to pay a substantial cost over and above those extra costs.

I do not regard Ken Livingstone as a frivolous candidate. I think London could do better, but it will be fascinating to see what decision he takes. My only point is that I wonder whether the purpose of the Opposition's position today is not simply to delay matters to allow Ken Livingstone more time to make up his mind.

Lord Rennard: My Lords, will the noble Lord accept that it would, for example, be impossible under Post Office regulations for the quoted driving instructor to advertise the phone number or address of the driving school and it would therefore be a pretty useless mailshot for him?

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, I do not accept that. The location of the driving school would be described. I am sure that the noble Lord is familiar with the Stroud Green Road. It is not an extremely long road. Usually an address is added at the bottom under the heading, "Printed and published by", which would provide the clues for those with good eyesight. The point is that the mailshot would provide an opportunity that could be used in that way. It is a serious concern. It would be wrong for your Lordships to pretend that it does not exist and that there is not a cost to government in so doing.

The other elements of the package have not been mentioned. The threshold for entering the mayoral election is quite low. It is £10,000 and 10 signatures in each of the various London local authorities. That is not a large number of signatures. The most difficult requirement is to find 10 electors in the area of the Corporation of London, which has some 5,000 electors--so in order to stand as a candidate one would have to find one in 500 electors to provide a signature. That is the most difficult requirement that has been set. But if the same threshold of one in 500 electors were applied, which is close to the threshold that applies in terms of signatures to stand as a local government candidate: in practice, 10 signatures in an electorate of, say 5,000--it would mean a requirement of 10,000 signatures across the Greater London area. That would require serious commitment by a political party, and one which candidates who wanted to stand for merely commercial or frivolous ends would find quite difficult. Similarly, if the deposit were put on the same level as that for parliamentary elections, it would

22 Feb 2000 : Column 170

be a much more substantial figure, running into several hundreds of thousands of pounds. I do not suggest that those thresholds would necessarily be appropriate. What I am suggesting is that the question of freepost must be examined in the context of the threshold for putting forward a candidacy.

The key point is that the amendment moved and the points made are inappropriate for this order. I suggested, perhaps frivolously (a word that has been repeated a number of time in this debate), that the idea of the amendment was simply to give time for an individual to consider his position. However, I wonder whether this House wants to go down on record as voting against an order which could have the consequence of delaying the election in London, when we know that the people of London want the Greater London Authority and an opportunity to vote for a mayor and assembly. I wonder whether this inappropriate move is simply designed to postpone the election. I wonder why, when there are other opportunities on the parliamentary timetable to raise this matter in a more appropriate way, this strange device has been cobbled together for this occasion if it is not to make some rather silly and petty party political point.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords--

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I have tried to take the sense of the House generally. It seems to be that we might perhaps hear from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench and then the Minister.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, there was a breathtaking moment in the early part of the noble Lord's speech when I thought that he was going to oppose his Government. After that, he lost his sense of direction and went in quite another.

I shall not speak at any length because I understand that Front Benches are united in wishing to shut us up. I am always very diffident. If I have any reputation at all in this House, it is for being exceedingly diffident for the convenience of the Front Benches. I merely want to make some brief points. First, I am heartily sorry that there is to be an election for the post of mayor of London. I deeply regret it, and I believe that the Prime Minister will come to regret it. So far, the process has not been a source of great satisfaction to any political party except the Liberals, who have a quarrel regarding a certain anonymity on the part of a very worthy candidate.

As to the nonsense that has been talked about conventions, I entirely agree with the noble Earl, Lord Russell. A custom has grown up whereby, when there is to be a fairly large election--no one can doubt that an election for the whole of London is quite a large affair--there is a general expectation that there will be a free electoral mailshot for every household. It is astonishing to hear such a stalwart supporter of the Labour Party going so far as to say that the great democratic institution of a free mailshot is equivalent

22 Feb 2000 : Column 171

to junk mail. It may be treated as junk mail, but surely it does not come well from him to talk as though it were.

In these circumstances, the Government have no grounds whatever for denying this. To say that we are all being rather frivolous and that we are making party political points is absolutely misplaced. The Government have made a very serious error. They ought not to press it further. I hope that they will receive a sharp lesson in this House tonight.

5.30 p.m.

Lord McNally: My Lords, first I should make clear to the noble Lord, Lord Harris, that at least the Liberal Democrats have been ready for this election for the past six months. As far as we are concerned, the sooner it takes place the better. The noble Lord is such a Pooh-Bah that it is difficult to know in what capacity he addresses the House. However, it was clear from his speech that today he addresses the House as a Millbank loyalist. I would rather have heard him speak in his capacity as chairman of the Association of London Government, which I understand has called for a freepost.

We have had a debate of high quality which has gone some way to meet the requirements of the noble Lord, Lord Peston. A good deal of the debate has been concerned with the shape, powers and responsibilities of the reformed House. The crux of the matter was put by my noble friend Lord Rennard, who spoke of posters all over London. We are talking about the biggest job in London. It is true that the subject we are debating tonight--freepost--is not within the orders, but it can be argued that in such circumstances we can use the powers of this House to right a negative as well as a positive wrong. As has been put forward time and again, in the raft of reforms put forward London was always seen as being on a par with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

As to the views of the noble Lords, Lord Peston and Lord Hardy, about a free mailshot, that is not the only buttress to democracy. However, as politics becomes more expensive and we move into Internet democracy, the power and wealth of the big battalions become stronger and stronger. For that reason, it is very important that we retain those elements in our electoral process that assist smaller parties and individuals.

The Government's arguments about cost are pretty rich. This is a government who have spent more on publications and propaganda than any other in peacetime history. To start rolling out the cost element is almost the last refuge. I suspect that the last refuge is lawyers' niggles, to which the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, referred. As was pointed out, they are always brought out in an emergency. Today, they have been successfully blown out of the water collectively by the noble and learned Lords, Lord Simon of Glaisdale and Lord Ackner. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, let the cat out of the bag. We are all aware of the convention which the Government clutch to their bosom. As always, it is not a convention but a

22 Feb 2000 : Column 172

convenient old boys' Act worked out between Front Benches. The Government anticipate that they will need it at some time and so do not rock the boat for the Opposition.

I am concerned that this should have been done by the Labour Party in connection with its raft of constitutional reforms. A number of speakers, among them the noble Lord, Lord Hardy, spoke about the fall-off in democracy. Before the election the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party had a committee which looked at a raft of reforms in an attempt to re-engage the public in the democratic process. I take pride in the speed with which most of those pledges have been carried out.

The noble Lord, Lord Peston, spoke about the Labour Party and democracy. No one doubts the party's long and historic commitment to democracy, but the chapter of incidents that have arisen as it tries to bring about these constitutional changes has, frankly, damaged its credibility. In Scotland we have seen the attempt to prevent Dennis Canavan from standing, which was quickly reversed by the will of the electorate. We saw the shambles in Wales involving Rhodri Morgan. We have also witnessed the farce in London over the past few weeks. The Labour Party is now becoming as much associated with fix and fiddle in elections as the Conservative Party was with sleaze, and it will do it as much electoral damage unless it cuts it out. My friends in the Labour Party--I have a few left--tell me that the problem lies with an over-promoted general secretary and a coterie of advisers around the Prime Minister who believe that they invented politics in 1997. If so, it behoves some of those on the Benches opposite to make them think again.

I was much impressed by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hughes. I hope that he will read the speeches of Diane Abbott, John McDonnell and Audrey Wise. He will be aware that when he was in the Commons he and they would have been part of the Tribune Group. There are now more members of the Tribune Group in this House than down the corridor. That is how matters develop.

The Labour Party organisation as I understood it was that of Sara Barker, whose slogan was "The triumph of ideals must be organised", not that the triumph of the Prime Minister must be obtained at any cost. It is time for the Labour Party to get behind its old principles. If by voting down this order tonight we give the Government time to think carefully as to whether in this election to provide London with new governance, which is a great achievement for the Labour Party, they should connive in such a shabby act as to deny a freepost, I believe that we shall be doing a service to that party as well as the country. The noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, said that the electorate would give the Government a bloody nose. I believe that if they pursue this course much longer the electorate will do so. In the meantime, I believe that we should give them a bloody nose.

22 Feb 2000 : Column 173

5.38 p.m.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, we approach the point where the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, must decide whether to press his Motion and other Lords must decide whether to follow him. This House has reached a critical point. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, may well be right that we have had an excellent debate; certainly, we have heard some excellent speeches. But it is also evident that none of those speeches has addressed the order that I moved two-and-a-half hours ago or quibbled with either that measure or the election rules, to which the noble Lord's Prayer relates. In other words, we have had a debate about a matter that is not actually before your Lordships' House.

I do not say that noble Lords should not conduct such a debate. In this House there have been a number of debates whose relationship to the Motion on the Order Paper has been remote, to say the least. However, I believe that when the House decides whether to use its undoubted constitutional right--which it rarely does--to vote down secondary legislation it should do so on the basis of the legislation before it, not legislation that is not before it. If this House did anything else it would not be exerting its constitutional role to ask the Government to think again or performing its role to improve legislation. It is, therefore, a slightly curious debate.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page