Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Rennard: My Lords, I could not let this occasion pass without referring to the great battle in this Chamber four years ago on the issue of Greater London mayoral candidates and their election addresses. It was interesting to hear the Minister advocating the case for the booklet and the importance of the communication, against which, four years ago, some of his predecessors fought long and hard. I was particularly interested in his observation that four years ago the cost of the operation was approximately 1.3 million, against the estimate for this time around.

11 Jul 2003 : Column 615

His predecessors suggested to me then that it would cost about 28 million. I feel somewhat vindicated by what he has said.

I note that the Minister in another place spoke of how the Government had listened to the arguments of your Lordships. I recall that they listened rather more to the assertion made by myself and the late Lord MacKay of Ardbrecknish that, if the Government would not allow the candidates to use Freepost, we would hold up the elections. We felt that it was an important issue for democracy that the communication was made by the candidates directly to the voters. So I very much welcome this order and that we are again pursuing the agreement that we made four years ago. In particular, I welcome the fact that we are retaining the feature that it will be delivered to each individual elector in London—some of us felt that that was very necessary four years ago—rather than it being delivered one per household. We know of so many houses in London with multi-occupation that it would be quite inadequate simply to address one to each household.

The method of delivery is important and requires a little more scrutiny. I assume that the GLRO—the Greater London Returning Officer—will be required to ensure that delivery by any organisation other than the Post Office would at least be to a standard that we would expect from the Post Office. Those with experience of delivery by commercial organisations will know that those organisations often fall far short of the standards expected of the Post Office and, very regrettably for our democracy, the Post Office itself has often fallen far short of what we would expect as regards its responsibilities in delivering election addresses.

On the issue of accessibility of election addresses, I particularly welcome the provision that the GLRO "may" make these available in Braille, large type or audio versions. Others have argued that this "must" be the case rather than "may". I see, however, some practical difficulties in relation just to the booklet and suggest that there are other ways that this might be done to the same effect rather better. There could be one or two A5 pages within the booklet with a number of photographs. Perhaps the candidate may prefer to have five photographs and few words, but translated into Braille that would look as though they had little to say. Other candidates may prefer to have many words and few photographs. Similar issues arise in relation to large type and audio versions.

All political parties by way of good practice for all elections should make versions of their election addresses and manifestos available in Braille, large type and audio. My suggestion is—and I hope the order may allow this—that the GLRO should say that, rather than simply being confined to making the A5 versions available in Braille, large type or audio, perhaps a prescribed form of words—say 200 words—which might fill the average A5 sheet, should be made available by each candidate which could then be made available in Braille and large type. Each candidate would be invited to make perhaps a 30 seconds or a one-minute contribution on audio tape that could be

11 Jul 2003 : Column 616

made generally available. That would be a more effective way of making the messages more accessible than simply saying that the election addresses may be provided by the GLRO in this way.

I sound a small note of regret on the booklet. Four years ago we reached a compromise to say that this would be available for the mayoral candidates but not for the candidates for the Greater London Assembly. That is regrettable when we consider that in the Scottish Parliament and in the Welsh Assembly each of the candidates for the list and for the individual constituencies is entitled to rather more than this booklet—indeed to equivalent election entitlements as were afforded to candidates to the Westminster Parliament. Therefore, I think that in future we should think of doing that.

I note that the Government have said in response to consultation, that there may be 200 candidates for the GLA and that the addresses could not be covered in one booklet. However, it seems to me that in this day and age 14 editions of a booklet could be produced allowing candidates for an individual assembly area to have their say. Perhaps the candidates at the top of the list should be featured with rather more prominence than simply being listed with their parties.

We are all concerned with diminishing turnouts in elections. Making more information available of this nature would be good in partially addressing the problem of lack of voter information, leading to such poor turnouts. It is a particularly welcome and excellent idea that the booklet may be on the Internet. I hope that that will become the form for many more of these things in the future. If we were to extend the facility to the candidates for the Greater London Assembly it may also be a cheap way for them to gain a little more publicity. They will not have as much as an A5 sheet themselves, but a small number of words and a reference to a website which they themselves establish would at least enable some voters to gain more information about them.

I raise an issue as perhaps a suggestion for the GLRO, who no doubt will read the debate in due course. It seems to me that this is a matter for his discretion. A way to save costs on this operation would be for delivery of the booklets to be combined with the delivery of the poll card for the election. I have made that suggestion a number of times. I think it would be a considerable saving to the public purse and a more efficient way of ensuring the distribution of these booklets. Perhaps the poll card could be printed in such a size that the voter's name and address appears in the window of an envelope and the booklet is enclosed in that envelope. Such a facility would produce a net saving.

On the issue of references to other candidates, it seems to me that not just in London—where perhaps we might say that the incumbent mayoral candidate may be a person of some controversy—but in almost any election, a candidate may seek to try and make his case by drawing a contrast with incumbents or with other candidates. It unduly restricts a political process to deny a candidate the opportunity to refer to any other candidate.

11 Jul 2003 : Column 617

The Minister said that of course candidates could refer to particular policies and issues. But some of these policies and issues are known to be those of particular candidates. It seems to be very difficult to say that a candidate could not, for example say, "I think the Mayor is wrong on his policy on a particular issue", or perhaps Simon Hughes, for example, might say, "I think the choice is between myself, Simon Hughes, and Ken Livingstone, the incumbent mayor". I cannot see why we should be so restrictive in this booklet when we are not in other candidate election addresses. It would be healthy for the debate if candidates were able to do that.

On a very technical issue, of course someone may be a candidate for the assembly and a candidate for the mayor. As I read the current regulations, a mayoral candidate producing the booklet could not refer to himself if he was also standing for the assembly, as a number of candidates did on the previous occasion. So I think that perhaps there is a case for looking again at this over-prescriptive rule about the election addresses.

Finally—and without wishing to pre-empt the role of the Minister—the noble Baroness asked questions about the imprint and the cost. As with the last time around, the 10,000 costs would have to appear in the individual's electoral expense returns. Imprint legislation has changed in the past four years. But, as in 1999, each candidate's agent would have to have a statement on his own individual item, accepting responsibility for that in order to protect the GLRO in case perhaps there was something defamatory contained within it. It may be perfectly acceptable for the GLRO to act as the publisher for the entire booklet, but he or she would be wise to insist that each candidate had his own publisher for each part of the publication. I am grateful to the Minister for his contribution and I look forward to his responses on a number of these issues.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, does not like the fact that the candidates will not be listed in alphabetic order, but will be taken by lot. It reminds me of when I was a publisher. We would sometimes leave out the index of a book in the hope that people would read the entire book rather than looking themselves or their friends up in the index. I am afraid that it did not really work.

It may be of help if I read out what the Electoral Commission said on this matter. It said:

11 Jul 2003 : Column 618

    "Our concern about alphabetical ordering of the election addresses is that there may be some benefit that accrues to those candidates happening to appear earlier in the booklet by virtue of their surname. This could arise for example where an undecided elector is not motivated to read through all the election addresses and merely reads through the first few. Accordingly, we would recommend that the amendment of draft article 8.1 to provide for the order of the election addresses be determined by lot, drawn by the returning officer as soon as reasonably practicable after the close of nominations".

I can see from the expression on the face of the noble Baroness that she is not convinced by the argument, but that is the reason why it is being done.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page