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Mr. Straw: I accept that it will be far better--it makes for much better debate, too--if there can be agreements between the parties. It is sometimes necessary--on this occasion, it is palpably necessary--for there to be a timetable motion. Sometimes, timetable motions are short, but agreement between the parties requires that the parties themselves are able to maintain some discipline. We were not in that position in the 1980s. We were in that position in the 1990s. I regret to say--although, in the end, it is their problem, not ours--that the current Opposition are not in that position.
I come to the reason for the timetable on the Elections Bill. The case for the Elections Bill was made at some length, as was, to some extent, the case against it, so far as one could understand it, during the exchanges on my statement on Monday. When I looked at Hansard, I noticed that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald went on for twice as long as I had in my original statement and it still was not particularly clear what exactly she was saying.
Although there is argument about the date to which the elections should be deferred--the Opposition say that they should be deferred without date and we say, as I believe do the Liberal Democrats, that they should be deferred until 7 June--there is no argument between the main parties that they should be deferred from 3 May. That being the case, they must be deferred very quickly. Otherwise, the electoral process will simply continue. It has to. Money has to continue to be spent unless and until the Bill is passed by the House and by the other place.
On Monday, I went into detail--I will go into further detail on Second Reading--to explain why we believe that it is inappropriate in terms not only of the process of elections, tourism and other factors, but of the conduct of local councils and their ability to represent their electors, to defer the elections for any significant time past 7 June. There is an argument about whether the date should be 7, 14 or 21 June. That is a choice, but it was plain to me when
If the elections are deferred indefinitely, one of two consequences will follow. One is that all by-elections will be deferred indefinitely. If that happens, with increasing frequency, existing members of councils, who I am sure will be willing to serve for an extra five weeks, but who were to have resigned on 3 May, or were not seeking renomination on 3 May, will resign because they have decided--or their party has decided on their behalf--not to serve for a further term. As I explained to the House, at each election--it is a surprisingly high figure--there is a turnover of about a quarter of councillors. They go. Therefore, over the coming months, we would find that 10, 15 or 20 per cent. of councillors had resigned. Sadly, some vacancies result from deaths.
As vacancies arose, for inevitable reasons, such as illness and death, the control of councils would start to shift as the balance changed randomly between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, or Conservatives and independents, simply because of resignations and deaths and not through the decision of the electorate. That must be wrong and would cause chaos in the administration of councils.
The alternative would be to continue to allow by-elections to take place, but we would then have a stream of by-elections, which have to be called within 35 days of a vacancy arising and to take place within 25 working days of that declaration--there is little of the flexibility that we have in respect of parliamentary by-elections--in the very rural areas where the disruption caused by foot and mouth is at its greatest.
If that course--logically and administratively, the better course--were followed, the weekly or bi-weekly by-elections in Cumbria and Devon would be more disruptive to rural life there and to the focus on foot and mouth than having a single day for the local elections, as we are proposing.
Mr. Hogg: I apologise for taking the Home Secretary back to what he was saying earlier on the Election Publications Bill and why the errors were made. Does that not illustrate why it would be helpful if we resorted more often to Special Standing Committees, allowing evidence to be taken and problems to come to light before a Bill is considered in detail?
Mr. Straw: As a health warning and caveat to my remarks, let me say that these are matters for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, but personally I think that there is a lot in what the right hon. and learned Gentleman says. He will forgive me if I remind him that in opposition we used to argue for Special Standing Committees, and one was used for the Children Act 1989--
Mr. Straw: I am sometimes wrong, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman may be right that it was not the Children Act but a special education measure on which we had a Special Standing Committee. Leaving that aside, I introduced a Special Standing Committee for the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, and it was the better for it, so I accept that point.
Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): It would be a very useful development if a Cabinet Minister such as my right hon. Friend gave an undertaking to the House that in future all Bills from his Department would be treated under that procedure. Once one Cabinet Minister took that decision in principle, others would follow. It is not only a matter for the Leader of the House.
Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I am concerned that we will not have time to reach clause 2, which relates to Northern Ireland. Is the Home Secretary confident that we will be able to have a proper debate on Northern Ireland, because some issues need to be discussed that make us nervous about the potential change of date?
Mr. Straw: I accept the concern of the hon. Gentleman, who is the Liberal Democrat spokesman on Northern Ireland matters. I have also had representations from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on the provisions as they affect Northern Ireland. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will deal with those matters when he replies.
I have explained the case for both Bills--with a bit of luck, to the satisfaction of both sides of the House--[Hon. Members: "No."] Opposition Members have been shot down in flames by their request for a precedent. The Gaming (Amendment) Act is a great precedent. The fact that it was not guillotined is neither here nor there; it was passed. My guess is that that legislation was far more significant to far more people than the Election Publications Bill will ever be, as it will affect only the small minority of those who are candidates or agents for elections. That is the precedent.
The Elections Bill will defer the date of the elections. As I said, there is widespread agreement on both sides of the House that they have to be deferred. Although there is disagreement on the date to which they should be deferred, that does not affect the need for urgency. What does affect the need for urgency is the fact that, if we do not produce certainty and ensure that everyone is given the legal certainty that 3 May is no longer the date for the elections and that another date has been inserted, we will simply waste a great deal of money and the time of local government staff, candidates, agents and their helpers.
Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): I have to say that, even for the Home Secretary, that speech was preposterous. The last time he moved a guillotine motion, he concluded his speech by saying: