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Mr. Straw: I am very grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments. [Interruption.] I believe that Conservative Members will regret their leadership's position, such as it is. The Conservative leadership is plainly devoid of the ability to rise to meet the national interest. [Interruption.]
Mr. Straw: In so far as I can judge, the Conservative approach of switch and switch again to every issue--[Hon. Members: "Oh!"] Oh yes. The number of statements by Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen, calling for the election to be held the next day if not the day before, is astonishing. I shall not bore the House by reading them out, but they are all on the record. Their policy of switch and switch again is determined by the Leader of the Opposition's approach to politics, which is to put his finger in the air every morning to ascertain which way the wind is blowing and hope that people will not notice.
I accept the comments of the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) about balancing the need to take account of the sensibilities and sensitivities in rural areas and farming communities and to ensure a period when all are engaged in fighting foot and mouth against not stringing the matter out indefinitely. That would send out the wrong message, especially about tourism. All of us who know and love the countryside realise that tourism and agriculture are inextricably linked, but that for every 1 per cent. of gross domestic product that comes from agriculture, 7 per cent. of GDP, our wealth and our jobs, is generated by tourism.
The hon. Gentleman asked me to look again at another matter, and I will be happy to discuss that with him. On the issue of general elections, he knows that the timing of any general election is a matter on which the Prime Minister, and the Prime Minister alone, advises Her Majesty.
Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): I believe that the vast majority of people of all political opinions--and of none--in Cumbria will welcome the announcement that the elections will not take place in May. However, they will wonder whether the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister are right to suggest that, in no circumstances, however bad the foot and mouth crisis becomes, would they contemplate moving the elections from June.
May I also check an important technical point with the Home Secretary? In his statement, he talked about the fact that many village schools would still be open and would therefore be able to serve as polling stations. He may know that returning officers across Cumbria have been told that village halls--which provide the bulk of polling stations in rural areas because the schools have long since closed--will not be open for an election in May, and will probably not be available to act as polling stations in June either. Will the Home Secretary please address that question, and the case that returning officers are making for universal automatic postal voting in Cumbria as the only way of ensuring a substantial voter turnout, whenever the elections take place?
Mr. Straw: I must say to the hon. Gentleman that this is a matter of balance. As the Prime Minister made clear earlier today, we believe that we have got the balance right. Of course we have thought about and worked through other alternatives. However, despite the calls from some Opposition Members when I was trying to explain the issue of by-elections, it could not be right to leave whole areas--including whole areas of Cumbria--unrepresented by not holding local county council elections in the near future.
To defer those elections indefinitely could mean either that large tracts of Cumbria, for example, would have no county councillors at all--on average, a quarter of all county wards in England, all of them single-member wards, would have no representation at all--or that the object of postponement would be defeated, because there would be a continuing cycle of by-elections as the inevitable casual vacancies caused by resignation or retirement took place. That is why we judged that certainty, in the form of a deferral of five weeks, was sensible.
I shall be happy to discuss the hon. Gentleman's point about village halls with him, and also to ensure that discussions on the matter take place with the returning officers and, of course, with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture. We have considered universal automatic postal votes, but we judged that they were not necessary. They might well have been necessary--as might emergency legislation to that effect--had we not already had provisions in force from 16 February for everyone to obtain a postal vote on demand.
The hon. Gentleman may not be aware--because it has not yet been formally announced--that we have also put in place an increase in the advertising campaign run by the electoral registration officers, the better to provide information about how to apply for a form. The forms will be very easily available, including on the internet.
Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter): I thank my right hon. Friend for listening to those of us who have argued that politicians should be fighting foot and mouth, not each other, in May. Did not the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) exceed even herself in her misjudgment of the mood of the House and the country? Is he aware that the chief of tourism in the south-west of England, Malcolm Bell, said today that he warmly welcomes the postponement of the local elections to June, although he added that the open-ended postponement advocated by the Conservative party would be absolutely disastrous for the British tourism industry?
Mr. Straw: I am glad that my hon. Friend welcomes the statement: because he represents an area that is one of those worst affected by foot and mouth disease and one of the most important for tourism in the country, he is also one of those to whom my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the Cabinet and I have listened carefully. I am aware of Mr. Bell's comments welcoming the decision to defer until 7 June, but no further. I have also had drawn to my attention, for example, comments by Carole Hutchings of the South Devon tourist association, who describes herself as a farmer on Dartmoor as well as someone who runs tourist attractions. She says that she, too, is glad of the deferment--but again, not beyond that date.
Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone): Does the Home Secretary recognise that in Northern Ireland farming represents a much larger percentage of gross domestic product than in the rest of the United Kingdom? Hence there has been huge anxiety about whether an election would be held, as had been forecast, on 3 May. I welcome the Government's decision, although given the veterinary advice that was available I am puzzled as to why it was not made sooner.
Like most Members and the Government, I hope that, by 7 June, the crisis will have begun to ease. There is a crisis today and we do not want it to become a catastrophe. Can the Home Secretary reassure me that compensation due to Northern Ireland local authorities will not come out of the very hard-pressed block grant, but will be new money to replace that already expended?
Mr. Straw: The decision was very difficult; it is not a laughing matter. It is unusual in peacetime for elections to be deferred, even for a short while. The most careful consideration was thus required. [Interruption.] Again, I hear sedentary comments from Conservatives; they have never deferred elections. Of course, they have abolished them altogether, however, as some of us remember. We are not going down that path.
Of course, I recognise the huge importance of farming to the economy and society of Northern Ireland; it is even greater than in many rural areas of the rest of the United Kingdom, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland loses no opportunity to remind the rest of the Cabinet of that fact. On compensation, I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman to give a detailed answer.