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Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Baroness but I had better make it clear that I was distinguishing between providing compensation for local authorities, which we support, and doing so for individuals, which we do not support.

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I do not argue with her point about hard work, but we do not support compensation for individual candidates.

Baroness Young: My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness if I misunderstood what she said. I think that we can all agree on providing compensation to local authorities. We should carefully consider providing compensation to others. The delay has put many people to great inconvenience and, no doubt, great expense.

My second point involves the inconvenience caused to employers and employees. Many people who stand for council elections are given three weeks off work by their employers to do the necessary work. Now what will happen? Will they be able to return to their job and get another three weeks off later on? That practical issue affects many people.

Thirdly, the proposals will have an effect on schools. The noble and learned Lord may make that point when he winds up. I recognise that most schools that are used as polling stations are primary schools, but 7th June is almost the peak time for examinations. If an authority uses a secondary school rather than a primary school for polling, that would be a serious disadvantage to candidates who are taking extremely important public examinations.

Fourthly, I want to take up another point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who discussed the mechanics of the work of local government. As anyone in local government knows, after a local government election and the announcement of the result, a sequence of meetings takes place. An 11-month year will affect that sequence of meetings. There could be serious delays in, for example, planning applications--important decisions might be held up. Social services and education might also be affected, although planning would be most seriously affected. It is important for local government to know at each step of the way exactly what detailed knock-on effects will apply.

Other points could be made in this context but we can doubtless examine them in Committee. I accept that it is right to put off the local elections. This serious issue raises many more points than simply those relating to dealing with this emergency. The Bill deserves close consideration and we should not forget the major constitutional points that are raised and which need to be examined. The Bill sets a precedent and we need to understand the circumstances in which we agree to it and what we should or should not agree to in future.

4.25 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, I shall confine my remarks to Northern Ireland. As the noble Lord, Lord Cope, has already observed, although provisions relating to Northern Ireland take up more than half of the Bill, the Minister's introduction gave relatively scant attention to it. If I were in his shoes, I should have been tempted to adopt the same tactics.

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My second observation is that I am amazed that, with the notable exception of the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, no noble Lord who hails from Northern Ireland is in his place.

At first glance, it is not easy to see why provisions relating to Northern Ireland should be included in the Bill, bearing in mind that there has not, thank goodness, been a widespread outbreak of foot and mouth disease there to the same extent as there has been in Great Britain. Moreover, provisions relating to Northern Ireland cannot have been included on the grounds that we expect conformity across the board in the formal arrangements that we make for the governance of the United Kingdom. After all, it was only on 15th February that this House made Northern Ireland an exception to the provisions of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act. We accepted then that in terms of the UK's system of government, there does not have to be uniformity in all circumstances. Indeed, that is axiomatic and entrenched now that there are devolved Assemblies in Northern Ireland and Wales and a Scottish Parliament with greater devolved powers. A very cogent case has to be made for changing the election date, but that case has not yet been made. That is the major principle that lies at the heart of our debate.

The honourable Member for Cannock Chase, speaking in another place last night, questioned whether it was proper for politicians to change the dates of fixed-term elections. Dr Tony Wright believes, as I do, that if circumstances arise that require the alteration of dates, the decision should be most appropriately left to the new Electoral Commission, which is an independent, non-party-political body that Parliament recently established.

As regards Northern Ireland, the Bill risks bearing the hallmarks of a gerrymander, which, of course, is not unknown in the island of Ireland. I hope that the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General will be able to demonstrate that that is not so.

Apart from the question of principle--that is, whether, short of war or an outbreak of civil unrest, fixed terms for elections should be arbitrarily tampered with--a number of detailed practical questions need to be considered in relation to Northern Ireland.

First, the chief executive of each of the 26 district councils is responsible for the conduct of elections, with the local deputy electoral officer acting as returning officer for all other elections in Northern Ireland. Did the Government consult electoral officials about whether it was wise to make such a significant change to the arrangements for local elections in Northern Ireland, without notice, or have they merely asked officials about how to do it?

Secondly, how practical is it to make the changes at such short notice, bearing in mind the particular difficulties of conducting elections in Northern Ireland? Thirdly--a detailed point--will there be two ballot boxes at each polling station? Fourthly, will extra staff be employed to deal with busy times?

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Fifthly, how will extra staff be organised to speed up voting, because one cannot have more than one person issuing ballot papers?

If there is a general election on 7th June--the same day as the local elections--who will have legal responsibility for the verification of ballot boxes for council elections if that is done at the parliamentary counting centre under the direction of the deputy electoral officer for the constituency? Moreover, what happens if there is a discrepancy when the council count starts on Monday, 11th June? In that regard, we should bear in mind that in many council elections, under the single transferable vote system, the last seat may be won by fewer than 10 votes--sometimes by much less than that--and that sometimes only four or five ballot papers need to go astray to invalidate the count.

Why are postal votes to be issued in two separate ways? Moreover, is it not possible to have both ballot papers issued for return in a single envelope with a single declaration? Finally, the rules for opening ballot boxes prescribe that a ballot paper in the wrong box should be counted. Why will a ballot paper in the wrong envelope not be counted? Will postal votes not be verified with other votes?

I end by stressing that this particular episode has demonstrated the case for fixed term elections for Westminster very well. Every State of the Nation survey made at regular intervals over the past 10 years has shown that there is overwhelming public support for such a constitutional change. Perhaps the Government will now undertake to provide support for Dr Tony Wright's Private Member's Bill which seeks to introduce fixed term Parliaments at Westminster.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Norton of Louth: My Lords, the reasons why this Bill has been introduced are well known and were advanced by the Minister. My purpose in speaking in this debate is not to address the crisis which precipitated it; nor is it my intention to address the implications of the Bill from the perspective of local government. There are many in your Lordships' House who can address those issues much more effectively than I can.

The Bill has constitutional implications and it is those I wish to address. I do so under two headings. The first is that of options. If it is necessary to postpone elections, what options have been considered? As we know, the Bill stipulates that local government elections shall be postponed until 7th June; others, including the Leader of the Opposition, argue for an indefinite delay. The Prime Minister, in making his statement said, "A short postponement is one thing. An indefinite delay is another". The options may be mutually exclusive. However, they are not exhaustive.

At least four other options may be considered. One is to delay local elections for a period of several months--say six months. There is no guarantee that foot and mouth disease will be under control by

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7th June. So why not allow a little longer? That could meet the balancing test enunciated by the Prime Minister.

Another option is to provide for a postponement of some but not all elections. Why not postpone elections only in those counties affected by foot and mouth disease? That is an option that was touched upon in the other place last night. As the Minister may be aware, in the general election of 1945 polling was delayed in 23 constituencies because of trades holidays, wakes or fairs.

The third option is to provide for a postponement of six months but to permit the date to be brought forward by order. That provides some flexibility without giving a blank cheque to government.

The fourth option is to abolish this year's elections altogether and give the existing authorities an extra year of life.

My purpose in identifying these options is not to advocate one in particular. It is to show that there are several options. Given the importance that clearly attaches to changing the dates of elections, it is important that we are aware of them and that they are considered. The Prime Minister may believe that the case for 7th June is overwhelming. It may be; but the decision to postpone is ultimately one not for the Prime Minister, but for Parliament. We must therefore consider fully not only the case for postponement to 7th June, but the alternatives to that.

I therefore pose the following questions to the noble and learned Lord who is to reply. What thought was given to the alternative options? Why were they rejected? We had a partial answer in the other place to some of the options, but not to all. The Minister may also have seen an article in the Independent on Friday by my colleague at Hull University, Mark Stuart, drawing attention to the fact that the general election of 1923 occurred during an outbreak of foot and mouth disease. Can the Minister tell us what study the Government undertook of that occasion prior to introducing this measure?

I turn to my second heading, which concerns the criteria for delaying elections. Elections are the lifeblood of democracy; they are the means by which electors choose their representatives; they are the means of ensuring a peaceful selection of government, both national and local; and they are a peaceful means of removing a government from office. We must be extremely careful before we start interfering with the blood supply of democracy.

We have statutory provision for parliamentary and local elections. We stipulate the maximum life of a Parliament. We set dates for the holding of local elections and, indeed, for other elections. We must be wary of moving election dates, certainly of postponing them for any length of time. I see no problem with a minor adjustment, as happened in 1986, because of a clash with Passover. However, once we start postponing them for several weeks or several months, it sets a precedent. The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, raised that concern in putting a question to

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the Leader of the House on Monday. We have postponed elections in wartime--a point to which I shall return--but should we be postponing them in peacetime?

If we are to postpone them, we need to be clear as to the criteria that would justify such a postponement. In short, we need to put on record the criteria that will justify what we are doing and, in so doing, set the boundaries for any attempts in the future to move election dates. I suggest that there are four essential criteria that must be met to justify delaying any election, be it parliamentary or local.

The first is that there must be a clear national crisis; that is, it must be apparent to most citizens that the country faces a domestic or international situation that affects the economic or social well-being or the security of the nation. The second is that the crisis must affect, materially and substantially, the capacity to conduct the elections. That may encompass campaigning as well as actual voting on polling day. The third is that there must be agreement between the parties that there is a case for delay. Unilateral action on the part of government must, in such circumstances, be avoided.

The fourth is that there must be proper parliamentary debate. Even though there may be a need for speed, this should not be at the expense of proper scrutiny. Agreement between the parties may equal might in terms of parliamentary voting strength, but might does not necessarily equal right. We need to hear all those with a view on the issue. Those who have dissenting views should not necessarily have a veto power, but it is important that their voices are heard.

All four conditions were met in time of war. Parliament agreed to postpone local and parliamentary elections in both world wars. In the Second World War, local elections were postponed initially under the terms of the 1939 Local Elections and Register of Electors (Temporary Provisions) Act. That Act postponed elections until the end of 1940. In moving the Second Reading the Home Secretary, Sir John Anderson, said that they would be extended by further legislation, "as circumstances require". Circumstances did require, and each year a new measure was introduced and enacted, extending in each case the delay by a further year. It is interesting that, during consideration of the measures, the question was raised by some Members of allowing elections where local citizens wanted elections to take place.

Parliamentary elections--or rather the election of Parliament--was postponed on an annual basis by a Prolongation of Parliament Act. The 1940 Bill was a one-clause Bill extending the life of the Parliament to six years, and the one the following year fell back on the Septennial Act. It was clear that when Churchill introduced the 1944 Bill, that would be the last of the Parliament.

There was a clear national crisis. The country was at war. The capacity to hold elections was significantly affected. Many of those who would normally be involved in elections, as officials or candidates, were

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busy fighting the war. Many buildings where polling would take place were in use for the war effort and the blackout created problems for people getting out to vote. Despite the pressures, Parliament continued to meet, and the measures each Session to extend the life of the Parliament and to postpone local elections were debated, on occasion with critical voices being heard. Parliament continued to do its duty; and indeed it emerged from the war with its reputation enhanced.

So the four criteria I outlined were clearly met. Are they met in present circumstances? There is a crisis in terms of the outbreak of foot and mouth, and we do not know when it will end. The Leader of the House emphasised on Monday that, in practice, local elections could go ahead on 3rd May. However, the campaign for those elections is likely to be affected by the outbreak of foot and mouth. Candidates and their supporters may have difficulty employing their usual means of eliciting support. Some of those involved in elections are occupied attending to the crisis. Indeed, there is every likelihood--this has already been touched upon--that some potential candidates are farmers isolated in their homes.

The second criterion is thus met, although I appreciate that there is room for discussion on the point. The case is persuasive rather than conclusive. The third criterion is also met in that this measure will be going through with all-party support. However, the fact that it is going through with all-party support emphasises the point of the fourth criterion; that is, that it must have proper parliamentary scrutiny.

Proper parliamentary scrutiny has a qualitative and a quantitative dimension. By that, I mean not only must there be sufficient time to discuss the measure, but the Government must also engage in a full and frank dialogue with both Houses. I believe that the time allocated in this House is probably sufficient. It is up to us to ensure that we are satisfied with the provisions. I welcome what the Leader of the House said on Monday about consultation. It is equally important that we have an informed debate on the Floor of the House so that those outside the House can see the basis for our deliberations and our decision.

A particular responsibility falls on this House. We have the experience and the expertise to subject measures to informed scrutiny. We also have the capacity to ensure that scrutiny is adequate in a way that the other place is unable to do. I understand that we are told that we cannot discuss the procedures of the other place, that the other place is master of its own procedure, and that we cannot interfere with that. I accept that. However, where the procedures of the other place have consequences for Parliament's capacity to determine public policy, we must be able to take note of those procedures. I use this debate to make that point. I regret that I did not pursue it on the Regulatory Reform Bill. I shall pursue it in the future.

It appears that the criteria that I have outlined are fulfilled in making the case for a postponement of local elections. I say "appears" because some may dispute the fulfilment of the second criterion and the fourth is only partially fulfilled. Furthermore, those criteria

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establish the case for delay. They do not help us to determine the length of the delay. That is a matter for further debate. One obvious criterion would be that applied in wartime, which is to wait until the crisis is over. However, even the events of 1945 are not conclusive, as there was disagreement on when the coalition should end. We must, therefore, address ourselves to the issue. That means a full discussion of the options that I have outlined. As the basis for that, I look forward to the noble and learned Lord providing a full response to the questions that I have posed.

4.42 p.m.

Lord Rennard: My Lords, in my view this debate on the postponement of elections clearly illustrates the need in this country for a written constitution and a fixed term Parliament. Once again, I find it strangely ironic to argue for democratic principles in an unelected Chamber. Whether elected or not, one of the main purposes of a second Chamber must be to keep a careful eye on how changes may be proposed to our democratic system.

All democrats should have serious concerns about such a fundamental change to democratic rules as the postponement of any elections. One concern about this legislation is the precedent that it may set for a government, at some point in the future, to decree a national emergency as warranting the postponement of any elections. A deeply unpopular government who are facing disaster at local or national polls may decide that a particular national crisis demands the full attention of the Prime Minister and that therefore some elections should be postponed. Who knows?

It is 19 years to the day since the Falklands task force set sail from Southampton. Despite the need to chair a daily war cabinet meeting, the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, did not feel that it was necessary to postpone the local elections of 1982. I can think of no Prime Minister who has been so closely involved in a local election campaign that he or she has been unable to get on with the business of running the country while local election campaigns took place.

The fact that the Falklands War was an international crisis and the foot and mouth outbreak is a terrible domestic problem in some areas is not in itself sufficient of a justification to treat the two crises differently. What is different is simply that a general election is in prospect as well as local elections.

Of course, there would have been some real difficulties in conducting the local elections in some of the worst affected areas such as Devon. The strength of feeling in such areas is such that I am sure that the Government are right to postpone local elections there for a short while, but in the vast majority of areas due to have local elections on 3rd May there are no such difficulties. The question today is why are we considering the postponement of local elections across the whole country. The only real case for the postponement of all the local elections is that the general election will take place on the same day. Everybody knows that, but no one from the Government can say so "on the record".

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The real reason why postponement of all local elections for one month is appropriate is because most people would consider it inappropriate voluntarily to choose to hold a general election at the same time as fighting a crisis that affects so much of our countryside. I have come to accept that argument with some reluctance because for Parliament to postpone any elections is a very serious matter.

I am also concerned about the signals that that may send to other countries where people are struggling to establish their democratic rights. No doubt Slobodan Milosevic now wishes that he had been able to postpone the last parliamentary elections in Serbia because of the grave crisis in that unhappy country following the failure of his military exploits.

It seems to me that if any democratic country postpones elections, any such postponement must require considerable consensus among all the main parties. I believe that that would be best guaranteed by a written constitution, perhaps requiring a two-thirds majority in both Houses of Parliament. That would be a proper process for ensuring that the electoral cycle was not simply being manipulated for party advantage.

A fixed term Parliament would also remove what I believe is an unfair and undemocratic advantage for an incumbent Prime Minister. The Labour Party recognised such a matter in 1992, but sadly lost sight of the principle as the prospect of power loomed in 1997. I believe that it is an issue that must be addressed if the process of constitutional reform in Britain is to continue in the next Parliament.

There are a number of details in the Bill to be considered. First, there is the issue of whether 7th June is the appropriate date for postponed elections. I believe that they should not take place later because a number of councillors will have assumed that their term of office will come to an end on 3rd May--they may have made other plans for the month of May onwards--and there will be other candidates waiting to offer their services to councils who will need to know in the near future what political direction they will be taking. Above all, it also makes sense for the general election to be held on 7th June so that those elections and all the arrangements and disturbance that go with them can be combined.

Another issue before us is the request of candidates to be compensated for their consequential losses in printing literature that includes a 3rd May polling date. I understand that that was a request made by the Conservative Party. If so, that appears to be yet another occasion when the Conservative Party requests state funding in addition to that which it currently receives via the so-called "Short money", the funds paid to the office of the Leader of the Opposition, the funds paid for the implementation of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act and the funds shortly to be on offer from the Policy Development Fund.

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Although my party believes that limited state funding would be better than dependency on a few wealthy individuals and organisations, we do not believe that state funding to compensate council candidates in this way would be appropriate. These elections are being postponed out of respect for the feelings of those in the countryside who are suffering from the foot and mouth outbreak. Imagine how outraged they would be if, while they await details of compensation for farmers and others, candidates who had simply printed their leaflets too early were to be compensated first. I believe that the Government should drop such an idea.

The matter of compensation to councils for their costs is a different matter. However, I was greatly surprised on Tuesday to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, the Leader of the House, argue for compensation for the cost of printing the ballot papers. Our country is an even less democratic place than I thought if local authorities have been able to print ballot papers even before nominations have closed. There will be plenty of time to print them between now and polling day if the legislation falls. There will, however, be some modest costs which they must incur in publishing lists of candidates and so forth.

Overall, there should be a considerable saving to many councils if the cost of running local elections on 7th June is combined with a general election on the same day. There will be no need to hire polling stations and special staff on two different occasions.

Finally, those responsible for organising these elections, those who participate in them and indeed the whole country would benefit if we changed from a system in which the date of our elections could change according to the changing mood of the Prime Minister and in which we did not have to rely on purchasing the Sun newspaper in order to find out when polling day would be. We would benefit from a system which provided advance certainty of when our general elections would take place.

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