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Earl Russell: My Lords, I was a little sorry to hear the noble Lord, Lord Peyton of Yeovil, calling for a Division today. I do not want to enter into a contest with the noble Lord about our respective energies in upsetting apple carts. We have both upset a few in our time; we have upset a few together and had great fun doing it; and I expect we shall do it again.
But I am rather reluctant to upset an apple cart by breaking off a negotiation carried on in good faith. I have not been a party to the negotiation, but the information that I have had makes it clear to me that that negotiation is understood to be carried on in good faith and must therefore be welcomed. One does not break off such a negotiation.
The question is not whether there is good faith but whether it is sufficiently strong to be what theologians described as a "saving" faith. Will it be enough to carry us through to a solution? The Government are finding things quite extraordinarily difficult.
The measure of how difficult the Government find something is a fairly good barometer of the intensity of the political will to do it. There have been occasions when very difficult things indeed have been done by government, sometimes with very great haste; for example, to meet the conclusion of the financial year or to meet a deadline at Prorogation. We can all think of examples. I do not need to specify them.
When governments think that it is quite this difficult, they need a little political encouragement to strengthen their political will. I must confess that I grew a little cold inside listening to the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy. The noble Lord and I were both in this Chamber on the European Parliamentary Elections Bill. That Bill set up an election across the identical constituency of London with the identical number of voters, with the identical system of freepost which we would have liked. I did not hear the noble Lord saying that that was totally impractical. He did no such thing. Nor, indeed, have I heard any indication whatever that in the course of the London elections for the European Parliament anybody found that system in the least impractical.
The noble Lord said that we should have come forward with detailed proposals. As soon as we knew that there was such a requirement, we did so. The House has heard from my noble friend Lord Rennard, who has put all his skill, expertise and ingenuity into this task, and they are considerable. But until we got
We hear a great deal about frivolous candidates. The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, suggested that nobody had yet responded to his example of the driving school. I heard my noble friend Lord Rennard, in this Chamber, replying to it in great detail in terms of the post office regulations. I found that reply entirely convincing. But if the Government are so concerned about frivolous candidates, why did they not feel the need to take that action in the European parliamentary elections for London? There was no such suggestion at all.
We have had the parallel of the Kensington and Chelsea by-election. On that, I cannot help agreeing with the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. The Government are well aware that the cost of a freepost for Greater London is greater than the cost of a freepost for Kensington and Chelsea. Of course, we concede that. But equally, I hope that the Government will concede that the cost of preparing material for a freepost for a candidate is equally much greater for Greater London than it is for Kensington and Chelsea. Therefore, any candidate who can afford the printing and preparation of the material for a freepost probably has other ways of getting his voice across, indeed possibly through the medium of a newspaper which the person responsible may own. The sort of person likely to be putting up a frivolous candidature is not likely to have enough money to do it with the Greater London mayoral election. If he had that much money, he would probably find a much better way of doing it.
I take strongly the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, about halls of residence. Getting post into halls of residence is a nightmare. The percentage turnout in elections among people under 25 is a great deal lower than that in the rest of the country. That is a matter we should all deplore. We should all do something to change it. One single leaflet to a hall of residence is nowhere near adequate.
I listened with interest to the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, about defining the households to which more than one delivery should be made. I suspect that that would be extremely difficult. Unless one uses a general definition of houses in multiple occupation, one would get into a great many technical questions. Nevertheless, if that is seen as a serious way forward, I do not see any reason why it should not be tried. We could sit down, try some definitions and see what happens.
The trouble is that the clock is ticking. I do not see how we can leave this business beyond Monday. Monday as a deadline for urgent business always creates certain practical problems. Increasingly, my definition of power is the number of weekend telephone numbers one possesses. A Monday deadline
The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, the words which come to mind are, "Sinners that repenteth"; "No great joy in Heaven"; "There is nothing more virtuous than a reformed whore", and so forth. One must say to the Government, "Many congratulations on changing your minds". As one of my colleagues stated, it also shows that the Government had simply not thought what they would do.
The arguments on this issue were extremely clear last week. Noble Lords on the Front Bench stand comparison in ability to any government I have seen in the 30 years in which I have been a Member of this House. There may be one or two exceptions, but I shall leave that aside. They stand comparison and therefore were capable of understanding the arguments put forward.
However, as I have seen before in this House with this Government, they lacked the machinery in their minds to make decisions on the hoof. Frequently, when in government, we would give hell to our own Front Bench. The Opposition would give them hell and the Liberals would join in. The poor wretched Minister would feel miserable. Somebody would say, "They have a point; give way". There would not be a Division. Something would be done and a week would not be lost. In this instance, a week has been lost. Having made that point, I back up the comments made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, about the importance of the Government meaning what they say and putting their political will into it. I am sure that they will, but I should like to help and encourage them on their way.
I should also like to emphasise the vital point made totally clear by everybody about the package being sent to individual electors. It seems to me that what appears on the leaflet is no concern of the Government. That should be left to the individual member. He cannot, of course, send them a whole copy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. One leaflet from each candidate, placed in one envelope issued all at once seems to be sensible, intelligent and would meet the point raised on cost. As the noble Lord, Lord Hardy, mentioned last week, the leaflets are delivered and nobody reads them. Perhaps they would be more inclined to do so if the package came in a small, concentrated, well-produced form. That will enhance their choice in their right to vote. Perhaps I may say to the Government Front Bench, "Courage, mes enfants". They have the will and the support from all round the House. They can do it.
Lord Biffen: My Lords, I shall not detain your Lordships for long. However, I should like to place on record my appreciation for the statement made by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton. He reacted as only he could to a situation created by the vote in this place.
This has been a magnificently spontaneous debate. As it proceeds, it has become clear that the issues raised are of such complexity and implication that they cannot be sorted out over the weekend and presented to this Chamber on Monday or thereafter. We have in prospect--the dream ticket of the two Front Benches--a botched job to deal with an immediate situation. However, behind us is a spectre, referred to by my noble friend Lord Forsyth. I refer to the whole frenetic desire for constitutional and institutional reform which has convulsed the politics of this country for the past two years. It is now seen to be producing consequences not properly assessed at the time and gives rise to difficulties every bit as much as those they were supposed to counter.
In this instance, very properly this House is required to consider how best we should proceed to fashion a revived local authority for the capital city of this country. We should be right on the first occasion. This should not be the subject of a re-run or a re-re-run. Perhaps this should remind us that in the mass of constitutional reform, a little caution and circumspection could be used.
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