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Lord Jopling: My Lords, I listened very carefully to the speech of the Minister. Having a suspicious nature, one possible solution that may be in the Government's mind crossed mine. I very much hope that the Minister will be able to tell the House that the solution that crosses my mind is not also in the Government's. I was struck by the way in which the Minister highlighted what he described as the frivolous candidates in the

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recent by-election in Chelsea. The Government may seek to give a freepost to the serious but not the frivolous candidates. One could state that there would be a freepost to any candidate who made a contribution towards his or her freepost. For the sake of argument, let us put the figure at £50,000. That would be one way of sifting the serious from the frivolous candidates. However, I believe that that would be a wholly unacceptable solution. It would fly in the face of democracy. I hope that the Minister will give an undertaking that that is not in the Government's mind.

5 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, I, too, join in making that plea. I believe that that solution would be totally unacceptable. On behalf of my party--it is a serious candidate in these elections--I hope that the Government will take seriously the important matter of whether the election address goes to one voter or one household. The entire objective must be to get details of the policies as stated by the candidates, or the mayoral candidates, to each person entitled to vote. This cannot be done in terms of households; it can be achieved only by delivering to individuals. In the course of the negotiations which will continue, I sincerely hope that that point will be borne in mind.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I was sorry to hear the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, say clearly before the debate had concluded that it was his intention to withdraw the amendment. I am not sure that I would not like still to put the issue to the test, but evidently we shall not have the opportunity.

The Government have created a huge constituency without thinking through the consequences. They are now surprised and shocked by the problem which they obviously had not anticipated. Quite rightly, the Government have some regard to the expense involved in a free mailshot. On the other hand, it seems more important that the electoral process should not be violated merely to suit the convenience of the Government who had not anticipated this problem.

A previous speaker said that it was clearly necessary to be fair to the individual candidate. I believe that in many elections the individual candidate deserves the utmost sympathy. He has a difficult row to hoe. He has every problem and very little help. The political parties and their so-called important representatives--the gladiators who appear on television and are given ample opportunity--receive it all. The individual candidate has nothing. It is perfectly true to say that there are lots of freak candidates in elections. It is also true that many of the candidates representing political parties are pretty disappointing, so there is no great virtue in being selected by a political party. I worry that the last shreds of independence will be lost. Anyone who stands as an independent candidate today needs to have his brain examined; his chances of success are small without the machine to back him. That is a deplorable situation. We are threatened here with further damage to the important process which lies at the heart of democracy: the right of the

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candidate to address himself to his electors individually, and not just to a household. That is a totally unacceptable, flabby compromise. I beg the Minister to take the issue very seriously. It is a matter of considerable concern.

I do not keep myself informed of every conversation between the Opposition, Government or Liberal Democrat Front Benches. However, when Front Benches come together in a quite unnatural harmony, I fear for the rest of us. I also fear for common sense and fairness. They seldom emerge from such a process. One puts common sense through the mangle--and heaven knows what will come out at the other end.

The Minister is not entitled to anticipate with any confidence that the mere fact that talks are taking place between Front Benches will bring him any comfort on the serious issues underlying the amendments. I return to the point I made at the beginning of my intervention. Not all of us are yet happy that the Government made the right decision by creating this huge constituency. We believe that even the Government may regret deeply the consequences--if they do not do so already. I am anxious now that one of those consequences should not be permanent and lasting further damage to the democratic process.

The Earl of Carnarvon: My Lords, I have the honour to be chairman of the All-Party London Group of your Lordships' House. In reaction to the Government's Green Paper on the governance of London, it was the unanimous view of that group that there should be one free mailshot. I think that that should be recorded.

Lord McCarthy: My Lords, my objection to the proposal now being accepted by the Government is largely on grounds of practicality. At present in local government elections one of the main things party activists do is to deliver the election addresses. For the most part--I can speak only for the Labour Party but I have seen other parties doing something similar--those are delivered by hand to each household but from the register. If one knows that there are 15 people in the house, one puts in 15 election addresses. With, for example, a hall of residence, one tries to find someone inside who knows where to place those addresses. One does one's best. That is the way it has always been done. Whatever else, it is practical. It has been done for a long time.

We are now being asked to do something entirely different in a local government context in these enormous constituencies. In general elections, European elections or by-elections the work is done centrally in constituencies. Everything is put in one place and at the appropriate time the Post Office picks it up, takes it away, and delivers it. The greater part of the work is again undertaken by local parties.

That system will not work. Indeed, no authority--Oxford City Council or whatever it may be--could authorise even the poll cards. The Government seem to be saying that what will happen is that we shall privatise the process, and use mailshot organisations because no one else can do what is required.

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I am worried about this although I do not see how the Government can go back now! I do not believe that the mailshot organisations have ever done this kind of job before and I do not believe that they will do it efficiently. I fear that subsequently many candidates will claim that some of their election addresses have not been delivered to all the people on the electoral role. I believe that those who have pushed for this proposal, and those who have forced the Government into a corner, have a responsibility to come forward either today or subsequently and explain precisely how they would overcome the many practical problems.

Lord Rennard: My Lords, I do not have a team of civil servants to advise me on the small pleasantries that I should make at the commencement of any speech, but I am grateful to the Minister for the opportunity to talk to him directly and for making remarks which will allow me to say a little more than I might have done on an important issue.

It seems to me that a sensible, relatively cheap and practical compromise can be reached on this issue and I hope that the Government will soon accept it. First, perhaps I may make it plain that a 200-word statement with passport photograph in a common booklet delivered to each delivery point, irrespective of the number of residents, is not remotely acceptable.

I understand that that format is sometimes used by the Labour Party for some of its own internal elections. However, I suggest that, given recent events, it would not necessarily be wise to follow the Labour Party's example of how to conduct internal selections when electing people to public offices such as mayor of London or member of the London assembly.

Two-hundred-word statements in identical formats do not equate with adequate opportunities for candidates to describe how they would undertake what has been described as "the biggest job in London". Such a booklet would be so boring that it would run counter to everything that the Government are trying to do with their £4.3 million campaign to encourage Londoners to vote in the elections.

A fairer, reasonable and affordable alternative is possible and I believe that the Secretary of State could be permitted to allow the leaflets to be sent together to each elector in a single envelope or package, but not as part of a single booklet, which would be rather dull. It would mean that the candidates paid for their own leaflets, but they would be allowed to express themselves in their own way. The discretions now revolve around the issues of potential abuse, costs and practicalities.

I do not want to repeat all of last week's debate, but abuse of the freepost in elections under the existing regulations is incredibly rare. The existing regulations state that:

    "Communications must contain matter relating to the election only".

If the Government wish to suggest that the words,

    "and must not contain any material of a purely commercial nature",

that would deal with the problem, slight as it is.

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Furthermore, I hope that the Government note that commercial abuse could apply in a 200-word statement in a booklet as equally as in a candidate's leaflet--unless they admit that the booklet would be so boring that no one would read it. Is that perhaps the intention of the exercise?

The principal objection to a booklet being delivered to every defined delivery point rather than to each voter is that many voters will never see it. Perhaps I may cite the Post Office regulations which define the delivery points for such a delivery. A house separated into flats with one common front door is one delivery point and receives only one leaflet, however many households and voters reside there. Blocks of flats--and there are many in London--with a locked main access door, receive only one leaflet per block, however many households and voters reside there. Hospitals, residential homes, forces camps or barracks receive only one leaflet, however many voters are resident there. For example, an old people's home with 37 residents may receive only one leaflet and a student hall of residence with, say, 1,700 students may still receive only one leaflet as one defined delivery point. I am sure that that is not what the Government intend, but it is what will happen if only one delivery point per household is agreed.

I shall now refer briefly to the question of costs. I have investigated a number of mailshot costings. One recently undertaken by a major company on behalf of a charity to 4.6 million individuals cost something less than £2 million. That even allowed for all the printing costs, which in the event of a freepost would be undertaken by all the candidates and parties. That costing also included the purchase of all the lists of the people to be mailed which, in the case of the freepost, would be free because it is based on the electoral register.

One estimate for a collated mailing which I received suggested that the cost of the mailshot for, say, 10 candidates each with an A4 leaflet, a covering letter that is personally addressed, inserted together in one overprinted envelope and with Post Office delivery to all 5 million voters could be as little as £1¼ million. Of course, the cost would increase if there were more candidates, but only marginally so. Therefore, the cost of the exercise of collating the leaflets and putting them in one envelope could be comparable with the Government's proposals.

Finally, I turn to the practicalities of the issue. It is agreed that the process of collating and filling envelopes could take two weeks. But there is sufficient time between the nominations closing, or even before the period for the withdrawal of candidates, and the time required for the Post Office to deliver the communications for this to happen. We are talking about the mayor's job being the biggest in London, but the job of organising the freepost in this way is small compared with what happens in general or European elections, or compared with what happened in the Scottish and Welsh elections.

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Perhaps I may illustrate how small a job it is compared with what would happen in, say, a general election. If by any chance the Prime Minister were to tender his resignation tomorrow, there would be a general election on 23rd March. Between now and then the Post Office would have to have delivered literature from each of the candidates in each of the 84 London constituencies either to each of the 5 million voters or to each of the 3 million delivery points as many as six or more times across the whole of London. If the Government have a will, there is a way to have fair elections on time.

5.15 p.m.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: My Lords, I hesitate to be churlish to the Minister after he opened with such warm words, but I believe that we are dealing with big issues of considerable concern. The Minister's suggestions indicate that some of the messages conveyed in our debates are not getting through. I was particularly concerned by the suggestion that for some time in the future the matter would be devolved to the local authorities to decide, with the cost no doubt having to be found from their budgets. That is a way of passing the buck on constitutional reform which has not been thought through. It is apparent that the Government had not considered the issue, no doubt because they had already decided who the next mayor of London would be.

I do not agree with my noble friend Lord Peyton that independents will necessarily have a hard job in the campaign. One particular independent hangs like a ghost around the debate. I have become more and more persuaded that central to the argument is the determination on the part of the Labour Party to ensure that its official candidate has every advantage in that campaign. I understand that your Lordships would prefer me not to be too partisan in my remarks and I am desperately trying to be helpful to the Minister.

However, the arguments that we are hearing from the Benches opposite are extraordinary. Sometimes last week I thought that the arguments were surreal. One noble Lord loyally argued that this was junk mail. In other debates, we are told that they are manifestos which we dare not counter in this House. Manifestos are now described as "junk mail". They are the only opportunity for the candidates to set out unfiltered and in detail what they stand for and what they believe on particular issues. It is argued that people such as Ken Livingstone receive a great deal of publicity. However, all of us know that if we rely on the media to put across our message, it becomes very distorted and selective. Therefore, all candidates should have the right to send a manifesto to every elector they choose.

Under the time-honoured tradition in general elections, candidates can send through the freepost one mailing per household or one per person. They choose, and sometimes the political parties decide to save money by opting for one per household. However, that is a choice which should be for the candidate, not for the Government. If the Minister is concerned about cost, let us end the whole business of

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having a mayor of London. Did it not occur to the Government that the process of establishing a mayor would involve substantial cost, just as has devolution in Scotland? I recall being denounced by Mr Donald Dewar for suggesting that the Scottish Parliament would cost £70 million. He said that that was ludicrous and that I was misleading the voters. He was absolutely right. It is now heading for £280 million! Substantial cost will be involved, so trying to save money on candidates publicising their manifestos is quite extraordinary.

I wish to make another point to the Minister. I believe that there is something deeply worrying about a government who have changed the rules in respect of using government information leaflets. When we were in government, we were told that we could not send out leaflets which were unsolicited. Very strict rules were imposed by the Cabinet Office which prevented Ministers from circulating information material. This Government seem to have got round those rules in a big way. Extremely large sums of money are being spent on publicity campaigns such as the present one, which we see on posters stating that this is the biggest job in London, on which the Government are spending nearly £5 million. Those rules have been changed for the Government--and the Government are now restricting access to publicity for people who might not agree with them. I believe that that is a most dangerous situation. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will reflect on the debate and recognise that if he seeks to limit the access of candidates to the electorate, that will undermine democracy and the credibility of the very post and election which he seeks to argue.

The noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, put forward another bizarre argument, if I may say so. He said that it would be impossible for the political parties to organise. Those arguments are becoming increasingly loyal, but also increasingly desperate. I hope that the Minister will listen to the voices from these Benches and from ordinary people in London. The danger is that the more the Government behave like this, the more they will act as a recruiting sergeant for people who will vote for men such as Ken Livingstone. People will see it as a way of demonstrating to the Government that they care about democracy and access to the voters, which this Government seem determined to frustrate.

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