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Lord McNally : My Lords, in Committee the noble Viscount, Lord Onslow reminded us--

Noble Lords: Earl Onslow!

Lord McNally: My Lords, I apologise to the noble Earl, Lord Onslow. After the next reform we shall all be citizens. The noble Earl reminded us that most of our constitutional reform has been done on the hoof. I hope that Ministers will not take too much notice of the call for greater consideration from the noble Lord, Lord Biffen. When we spoke of reform of the Lords the same argument was made after a pause of 80 years between reforms.

I am pleased that the Government have gone ahead with their commitment to giving London strategic governance and a mayor of its own. However, what I found to be extraordinary about this debate--if I was the Government Chief Whip I would really ponder this--is the fact that we have a Through the Looking-Glass situation where the wisdom is coming from the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, and the rather strange behaviour from the Government Front Bench. Respectability beckons the noble Earl--

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, desperation beckons the country!

Lord McNally : My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart began his speech with the military maxim, "Retreat from an indefensible position". My advice would be the old maxim used by Denis Healey, "When in a hole, stop digging". It is extraordinary this afternoon that the Government Front Bench has not stopped digging.

The Minister grimaces. It would have been far better if he had simply stood up and said, "Negotiations are proceeding but I pledge to you that I shall find a solution to this". Instead of that, he

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trotted out the questions of cost, abuse, and time which were thoroughly dealt with in Committee. On the question of cost, if the Minister wants to go back to Hansard, he will see that at one stage he was telling us that this would cost £40 million; it then went down to £15 million; and the last we heard it was just under £2 million. That indicates that it is a good thing to bargain!

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the issue of cost is important. In Committee I said that the amendments on offer at that time were plainly a blank cheque. During the process of negotiation--that is all we have been talking about this evening--we came up with a formula which reduces the cost considerably. That is to everyone's credit. People focused on the issue of cost and took it seriously. It is important, as is the question of abuse, and as are the pragmatics and the practicalities of the issue. We should concentrate on that, and not on the high theory of it all.

Lord McNally: My Lords, the high theory of how elections are conducted is worth debating. The Minister provoked a debate which, with a different explanation, he may not have provoked, certainly without some of the contributions of his Back-Benchers. We still remain worried that time constraints now enter this argument. Some of those time constraints arise because the Government have not been fleet of foot or empowered enough to make decisions.

I understand that both the Government Office for London and the Home Office are taking part in the negotiations. The Government Office for London may be taking part in this for the first time, but the Home Office is full of clever people who have run many elections. I want an assurance from the Minister that people of experience and seniority will be involved to enable decisions to be made quickly. We do not want to come back next Monday and be given explanations in relation to time.

On a number of occasions, we have seen that where there is a will, there is a way. We are looking for commitment from the Government Front Bench that they intend to solve these problems rather than look for further problems, and that they will settle this matter in a way that will give confidence not only to these Benches, but also to the people of London. That confidence is severely lacking at the moment because of the way the Government have so far botched this job.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we have had a long and extensive third debate this evening on this issue. I have listened to some disparate comments, but want to bring the argument back to the pragmatism and practicalities of the issue; that is where the debate should rest.

We have given a clear commitment that we are happy to go forward with a freepost. What appears to divide us is how best we can achieve that at reasonable

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cost and limiting the scope for abuse. That is where we should focus our attention. We need more time to resolve those important issues.

Our preferred option, as was made clear in the contributions, was that we should produce a single booklet with every candidate having equal access to it--with logos, head and shoulders (rather than head and off-the-shoulders in one case) and perhaps with a contribution from each candidate. That is what we put on offer. Yesterday, when we got down to the nuts-and-bolts discussion, the noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord Goodhart, made a strong plea for a different approach. Instead of saying, "Sorry, nothing to discuss", we were happy to send away the officials from each of the major political parties to have nuts-and-bolts discussions with the officials of the Government Office for London. We felt that that was the pragmatic and sensible way to deal with this matter.

The Government want to see those discussions continue. We feel that that is the best way to find a solution that satisfies everyone's anxieties in all this. That is how we should approach it. We are not inventing timetables for the sake of it. They exist in legislation; they exist in the election process and we have to abide by them.

Another point I should make to your Lordships this evening is that legal processes are involved in the way in which elections operate. We must ensure that the processes, practices and procedures we adopt are fair to all the candidates. That must be right. We must ensure that we stick to the election law because that must guide the way in which we operate and inform ourselves.

A number of questions and points were raised during what has been a long debate. I do not intend to respond to them all. However, I can offer some reassurance on one or two. The noble Lord, Lord Jopling, was concerned that we should not try to invent ways of squeezing out or of disregarding the interests of smaller parties. I can assure him that that is neither our intention nor our objective in the way we approach this issue. In fact, our argument for the booklet solution was that it was equal and fair to all the parties that contribute to it. That was one of the elements that informed that approach. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, made an equally strong case for a single sheet being put into an envelope as being fair to the smaller parties. We can judge over time whether or not that is the right approach. But we are not trying to discriminate against the smaller parties and I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, will be happy with that. He made that self-same plea.

The noble Lord, Lord Peyton of Yeovil, made an interesting and important point in relation to the issue of individuals and households. That formed part of the discussions that have been taking place. It is fair to say that at the general election 70 per cent of all the freepost was delivered to households, not individual electors. The one party that performed particularly well in getting its material to the Post Office in last year's European elections was the Liberal Democrat

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Party. By and large it tried to inform individual electors. The Labour and Conservative Parties were content to send their freepost mailshots to households.

That is how the situation was explained to me. There is a debate as to whether or not we can achieve the same for this set of mayoral elections. We need to focus on the practicalities and pragmatics. That is what we need to keep coming back to.

I can assure your Lordships that in bringing forward a proposal and agreeing to a freepost, we need to concentrate on getting it right. We need to ensure that we can deliver whatever solution we come up with so that people receive their freepost in time for it to influence in some way or other the way in which they vote on 4th May in the mayoral elections. We should bear that in mind at each and every step.

I was criticised for not being passionate enough in my original comments. I have always felt that I am a reasonably passionate sort of soul. I certainly feel passionate about the issue of elections. I want to see us get these elections right. We must ensure that what we promise, we can deliver. We are judged by delivery, as people constantly remind us. I hope that, with those assurances, the noble Lords, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish and Lord Goodhart, will feel able with confidence to withdraw their amendments so that we can concentrate on sorting out this issue to everyone's satisfaction for the future and for the good running of the election.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, perhaps I may first help the noble Lord, the Captain of the Honourable Corps of the Gentlemen-at-Arms, by saying that I have no intention of seeking to press this amendment to a vote.

Lord Carter: My Lords, the noble Lord always calls me the Captain of the Honourable Corps of the Gentlemen-at-Arms rather than the Chief Whip, which is what everybody else calls me.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I was trying to elevate the noble Lord a bit above the vulgarities of just being the Chief Whip in controlling his troops. However, I do not intend to seek to press this amendment to a Division. I hope that does not disappoint some of my noble friends behind me.

I hope that this debate firmly underlined to the Government the seriousness with which your Lordships treat this issue in seeking to find a sensible solution to it. I shall not negotiate across the Dispatch Box; that would not be sensible. A noble Lord, accompanied by Mr Roger Pratt from Conservative Central Office, today met officials. I must repeat something that has already been said: those two gentlemen know a thing or two or five about fighting, winning and perhaps occasionally losing elections. They know a thing or two about getting a variety of leaflets out, not just the one to the Post Office, but also the one the workers put out. I just hope that they are in contact with people who also know about the technicalities of distributing leaflets.

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Some of the objections I have heard seem to me to fail to take into account modern techniques, modern technology and the way that various mailshot firms are able quickly to produce very glossy material and have it delivered pretty efficiently. Indeed, even the Government seem increasingly to deluge at least my desk and post box with glossy material day after day. I have no doubt that that is produced at considerable expense, but it is delivered rather effectively.

There are modern ways of dealing with these issues and putting out leaflets that were not perhaps available a few years ago. I hope that the Government will consult some of the new companies in the field that know how to do this for help and advice. That immediately brings me to the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy. I wondered exactly where he was coming from for a while, but I suddenly realised that private firms might be involved in the process. That seems to be an anathema to the noble Lord. I hope that his Government have moved considerably from the position that the noble Lord still seems to take and that they now accept private firms--

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