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Sir Patrick Cormack: Does the hon. Gentleman realise that the only reason for our tabling the new clause is that the Government have chosen 7 June, a perilously close date on which it is likely, on all predictions, that the foot and mouth epidemic will still be at its height? If the Government had chosen a significantly later date, the hon. Gentleman would not need to make this speech.
Mr. Benn: I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but this is a question of judgment and I think that it is reasonable to delay the elections until 7 June. We are debating the new clause, however, and the problem is that it would mean that if the Government could argue that the four objective tests on foot and mouth disease--with great respect, I must say that some of them are rather subjective--had not been met, they would have the power to postpone the local government elections until any date they cared to name, with no end date. That cannot be right, and for that reason the House should not support the new clause.
Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I would go further and say that it is vital for democracy that there be a clear date for the elections and that it should not be long after the original date of 3 May. As I said earlier, consideration of any further delay should take place only in an extreme case.
There are two other reasons why the new clause should not be accepted. It allows for the possibility of different election dates in different parts of the country. Elections might be delayed in some council areas but go ahead in others, and that would lead to many problems. It would significantly erode the democratic principle. People in areas where elections were delayed would know what had
The new clause is based on a spurious attempt to suggest that there are clear, objective criteria for defining when foot and mouth disease is under control in a particular and, in some cases, small area. Four standards are proposed. Do hon. Members believe that in some of the relatively small council areas that we are talking about it would be possible to make a clear, objective judgment about whether, for example, the geographical spread of the disease had been reversed in that area?
The new clause smacks of a Conservative party that is concerned about the success of candidates in a particular area. Some Tories may try to argue that the disease has not been reversed in their council area, whereas others who expect to do well will suggest that it has been reversed. I do not believe that there can be clearly defined, objective criteria on when the outbreak is under control. Such criteria could possibly be provided on a nationwide basis, although I have reservations about that, but I do not believe that that could be defined for small areas. We need a clear and specified date that is relatively soon.
Mr. Waterson: It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman seems to share the Prime Minister's obsession with 7 June as a date for the elections. How bad would circumstances have to be for his party to argue in due course that the 7 June date is inappropriate?
Mr. Foster: I have already made it clear that I believe that the Prime Minister made the right decision to defer the timing of the election for a short period. The foot and mouth outbreak would have to be significantly worse than predicted, and worse than it is likely to be, before I would even remotely contemplate supporting a further delay. The democratic process is vital. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me that, if we continued to delay week after week and month after month, we would create uncertainty and it would send out a clear signal that this country was closed for business. That would have a serious impact on small businesses and the tourism industry, about which many people are concerned.
For the three reasons I have given, I hope that the House will reject the amendment, and that we will still have some time for a Third Reading debate. That will enable the Minister to answer the many points that have been put to him, but to which he has not had time to reply.
Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale): I want to put the point of view from my constituency. It is a huge rural constituency in Scotland, and is one of the 10 largest--it is more than 600 square miles. I well understand the reason for this legislation, and the dilemma that the Government and the Prime Minister were in last week. I did not envy him his task in making that decision, and I do not envy him having made it. I support his decision, because he made it in the national interest. He certainly made it in the interest of a huge rural constituency that contains a large farming community and an equally large tourist industry.
The decision was fine, and it had to be made. We had to strike a balance, and give priority to dealing with the foot and mouth outbreak while looking after the national interest, the general economy and the tourist industry in particular.
Having said that, now that we have had to change the date of the elections, and because there is an understanding, an inference or an assumption that there may also be a general election on 7 June, I believe that it was a missed opportunity to consider turnouts in general elections, which is of interest to right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House.
I could be accused of having a self-interest in what I am about to propose. I tabled an amendment to move the date of the elections from 7 to 10 June. I had two reasons for doing that. First, it would enable us to see whether we could improve the turnout by having elections at weekends instead of mid-week. My second reason was out of self-interest. We have an honourable tradition in my constituency on the Thursday in June known as Lanark Lanimer day. That may sound like a local or constituency issue, but people come home to Lanark and Clydesdale from all over the world to attend the celebrations, and they have been cancelled on three or four occasions. They had to be postponed on 11 June 1987, the day on which I was elected, and that may happen again this time.
Mr. Tyler: Perhaps I can reassure the hon. Gentleman. The last general election took place on 1 May, a date on which people from all over the world come to Padstow in my constituency for the "'obby 'oss" celebrations. On that occasion, we simply told everyone that their votes would count more if they reached the polling stations before 11 am, because after that time they might be--in one way or another--incapacitated. It worked like a dream: we had a 60 per cent. poll by 11 am.
Mr. Hood: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is saying that he supports my wish to protect Lanimer day in Lanark on 7 June, but I assure him that it is impossible to organise such a day in my constituency and deal with a general election at the same time.
I made that point from a constituency point of view. I strongly support the way in which the Government are dealing with the crisis in the rural communities. I hesitate to criticise our media, but let me issue a sincere and constructive criticism. The media are the first to tell politicians when we are talking down the national interest, and the first to lecture us in that regard. It is important for them to report the facts, but I have seen the same cows burn for three weeks on the same television station. I have seen the same pictures of corpses that were killed and disposed of three or four weeks ago. Throughout the media, an image is being presented that is far worse than the reality.
I believe that the Government are dealing with the situation as best they can, and that that is acceptable. Our media should be responsible: they should report the facts, but they should also support the Government's action in looking after the national economy and saving our rural communities and the tourism industry in those communities. If they do so, they will serve not only the democracy that we are discussing, but industry and the country.
Having said that, I still believe that my colleagues have done the House a service in drawing up, in a very short time, a detailed new clause that seeks to address the real problem we face. Although the Bill is designed to deal specifically with local elections, in my case the Hampshire county council elections, all Members of Parliament know--and, even if we are not prepared to acknowledge it, everyone outside the House knows--that what we are talking about is, potentially, the date of the next general election. There is no point in our deceiving ourselves in that regard.
I think that what we are doing by means of the new clause is helping the Government, particularly the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, to fulfil the commitment that they gave the country on Monday. We know that the whole country was geared up--certainly, the media and the party political machines were--for local elections on 3 May. We know that plans had been made for a general election, but there was grave disquiet in the country. If we as politicians had been seen to be putting ourselves first and failing to give 100 per cent. effort to the campaign to eradicate the tragic disease of foot and mouth, which is causing such misery and anguish in rural communities, the Government would have paid a heavy penalty at the polls, local and national. It was for that reason that the Prime Minister made a judgment, assisted by Mr. Trevor Kavanagh and the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) no doubt, that such was the gravity of the situation in our rural communities that the local elections at least should be put off.
The point that I want to make is not a novel one; it has been made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. If the Government follow the logic of their argument, they have impaled themselves and boxed themselves into a corner--if I may mix my metaphors--by inserting 7 June in the Bill.
We are trying to help the Government because if there is no significant improvement, if the tests are not met come 4, 5, 8 or 14 May, the Prime Minister will be left marooned on a sandbank. He will have no get-out by which to postpone the elections on 7 June. Far from being in the interests of the Conservative party, the new clause offers the Government a way out. It certainly offers the Prime Minister--we know how resentful most of his Back Benchers are at his solo decision--a way out.
The hon. Member for Leeds, Central identified the risk in the new clause. That is a risk that the Opposition are prepared to accept. We believe that it would be wrong to put party before country. We must put country first and not party. The duty of politicians is to focus our every endeavour on eradicating the disease. The Opposition have by the new clause provided a mechanism by which the Government can do that.
If the Government do not accept the new clause, and the epidemic does not relent, they will stand accused of having failed to listen to the arguments and to take advantage of a flexible mechanism by which they could have continued to bend every sinew to ensure that the disease was eradicated, rather than committing themselves irrevocably to holding a series of local elections, and indeed a general election, on 7 June.