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Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington): I welcome the sensible decision to postpone the local government elections, but will my right hon. Friend consider again--in these exceptional circumstances--allowing candidates one free mail shot to each elector, as foot and mouth may still be causing trouble?
May I also make a personal request? Speaking as one of those who will not be standing at the general election, may I ask my right hon. Friend in no circumstances to postpone these elections any further--certainly not for the 10 years, at least, that will pass before the Conservatives again become remotely electable?
I shall be happy to talk to my hon. Friend about free mail shots, but when we have considered the matter in the recent past we have not been convinced that the cost and complexity involved would not outweigh the perceived advantages. There is no legislative cover, which would make the procedure particularly complicated and detailed.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his statement, but will he give an assurance that if foot and mouth is not under control on 7 June--which, sadly, is possible--he will draft the Bill in a way that would allow elections in at least some parts of the country to be delayed beyond that date?
Mr. Straw: I regret to say that that is not possible. Our experience of the 1967 outbreak suggests that foot and mouth is likely to be with us for some time, although I shall not enter the realms of predicting the path of the disease. We have considered carefully whether it would be possible to tell one group of electors, but not another, that their elections would be deferred; but given the questions of where to draw the line and the criteria on which to draw it, and of fairness to one group of electors in relation to another, we have judged the idea to be wholly impractical.
Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough): The Home Secretary has referred to the serious consequences of foot and mouth for the tourist trade, but is it not also having a severe impact on our meat exporting trade? Middlesbrough contains a meat-processing factory with 40 workers, exporting to Belgium and Holland. It has been seriously affected by the crisis.
The Home Secretary has told the House twice that a quarter of our councillors are chosen at local elections each year, and that there is a series of by-elections. Will he confirm that the budget cycle will begin in September? There is constant interaction between Government and local councils, and local council elections are as important to our democracy as national elections. Would not deferring local elections indefinitely deal a destabilising and detrimental blow to our local democracy?
The House may be interested to hear some figures. In 1999, of 11,380 councillors who were due for election, 2,695--24 per cent.--stood down. The proportion was similar last year, although fewer electoral wards and fewer councillors were involved.
My hon. Friend is right: to postpone the elections indefinitely and not to hold by-elections would cause local democracy to grind to a halt. It would plainly be unacceptable for the control of councils to pass randomly from one party to another, with no reference to the electors, as a result of acts of God or chance retirements.
Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): Delaying the local elections only until 7 June is gesture politics at its most obvious. Will the Home Secretary confirm that foot and mouth will still be with us on 7 June? Indeed, it might even be worse. If the Prime Minister had wanted to do what was right for the country, rather than convenient for him, he would have initiated a real delay in the elections. Will the Home Secretary confirm that there is a precedent for delaying local elections by a year? Incidentally, what does he intend to do about the census on 29 April, for which people will have to visit all homes personally in order to gather information?
Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman may not accept this--I doubt that he will--but I know for certain that the Prime Minister has taken this decision in the national interest: there is nobody more concerned about foot and mouth or anxious to ensure that it is brought properly under control, however long that takes.
There is a precedent for a delay of a week in the local elections. It occurred in 1986, when it transpired that the first Thursday in May would have coincided with the Jewish festival of Passover. Local elections were also deferred in wartime. There are no other precedents, except that elections have sometimes been abolished, as they were by the Conservatives when they got rid of the GLC.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the census. Len Cook, as the national statistician--the Office for National Statistics is responsible for conducting the census--has already issued a public statement, last week I think, drawing attention to the detailed arrangements that he is making for the canvassing, as it is called, of returns under the census, and he has made it clear that in farming areas that will be done by post.
Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend makes a sage observation. The problem is that we have seen no credible candidates for the leadership of the Tory party on display today. It is true that we have received reports of local Conservatives associations taking an unexpectedly active part in local politics in foot and mouth disease areas. My hon. Friend mentioned one such incident, and I have already mentioned the activities of the Conservatives in the city of Carlisle, where the agent to the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) is a candidate.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): Toby Sturgis and Jane Scott, who are livestock farmers in my constituency and candidates in the forthcoming local government elections, will understand and be grateful for the Home Secretary's announcement that the elections are to be deferred. They are in a restricted area and cannot currently campaign. If, God forbid, ours remains a restricted area on 7 June, how am I to explain to them that last month the election was deferred because they could not campaign, whereas this month, with conditions no better, it is suddenly all right? I cannot fob them off with an obscure point about a by-election in Carlisle--they simply will not wear it.
Mr. Straw: I have already made it clear that our judgment is that there were no practical impediments in the way of elections going ahead all over the country on 3 May, so the assumption behind the hon. Gentleman's question does not arise. As we all know, electoral and campaigning methods have changed over the years. There is much greater use of telephone canvassing in rural as well as urban areas, postal voting is available on demand and the public highways are open in all areas.
Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West): Does my right hon. Friend agree that, on foot and mouth and the election date, all we have seen from the Conservatives are crocodile tears for the farmers and those employed in the tourist trade? If the Conservatives really believe that delaying the local elections is in the national interest, why, on Wednesday of last week, did the Conservative party launch its local election manifesto in Berkshire? Does my right hon. Friend agree that, on this issue, the Conservatives stand condemned as nothing more than a bunch of opportunistic hypocrites?