Previous SectionIndexHome Page

9.30 pm

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham): I am happy to follow the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), because the debate is in part about something dear to his heart: the constitutional nature of our political arrangements. The new clause would introduce a remarkable constitutional innovation: that the blisters around a sheep's mouth and the sores around a cattle hoof should determine whether democratic elections take place. I have searched Bagehot and the constitutional histories available in the Library, and nowhere is it stated that the condition of agricultural livestock should be the variable factor determining the movable feast of when elections take place.

The conditions in paragraphs (a) to (d) read as though they have been downloaded from an old MAFF website. We welcome the conditions that


and that

We are perhaps less keen on the condition suggesting that opinion polls should show significant gains for the Conservative party.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) put his finger on it when he said that it was a matter of political judgment. It is a tribute to the flexibility of our constitution that the Prime Minister could take the decision that he took and listen to the nation. Judging

4 Apr 2001 : Column 432

from the parliamentary Labour party meeting this morning, he did so with pretty much the unanimous support of Labour Members of Parliament.

I asked some friends in the United States what it would take for any American election to be postponed or varied. Would it happen if "The X-Files" proved to be true; if aliens landed; or if the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) became an American citizen? I asked them whether, if any such natural disaster befell the American people, elections would be suspended. They listened in complete incomprehension. We should take cognisance of the fact that, in putting off an election even for one month, we are probably alone in the democratic world.

I am certainly happy, at this time of night, when no one is taking a great deal of notice, to make the argument for fixed-term Parliaments, which would obviate completely the discussions that we have been having in the past few weeks.

Hon. Members will have heard the alarming news that a large number of tuberculosis cases have been reported at a school in Leicester, and that the local medical authorities talked of a virulent disease that could spread rapidly, even beyond the confines of the school. All animals with foot and mouth get better, and it poses no human health risk, so were I a Leicester parent, I would be asking why obsessive media attention has been concentrated in recent weeks on the fact that hundreds of thousands of our cows and sheep have caught a very nasty cold, with foot and mouth ulcers.

We have suspended elections and the House has been utterly pre-occupied with that, whereas I suspect that children and parents in Leicester are in very great fear. Their situation, however, has commanded not nearly the same attention as the elections have received from the gentlemen of the press in the Gallery and from Conservative Members.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is really rather an endearing specimen in the House in that he is almost invariably off message, despite the fact that he is on the payroll vote. When he is on message, however, it seems to be only by accident. Will he confirm that he is profoundly opposed to any postponement, as seems to be the subtext of his remarks today, and that even if the foot and mouth contagion dramatically worsened in the next four weeks, he would still want all elections to go ahead? That is the burden of the position that is being expressed by a Parliamentary Private Secretary to a Minister.

Mr. MacShane: All I can say to the hon. Gentleman, as always, is read my lips--or rather my speech in tomorrow's Hansard, where my meaning will be perfectly plain. He may like me to repeat what I have just said, but I am sure that the occupant of the Chair would not. Nevertheless, one of the pleasures of debating with the equally endearing hon. Gentleman is that, regardless of how often hon. Members tell him that one and one are two, he pops up and insists that they are one and a half or three or four or five, or that in any case it is all a European plot to take over the British arithmetic system. I therefore invite him to read tomorrow's Hansard.

The borough of Rotherham in which my constituency lies is 65 per cent. rural and there was great concern when, over the weekend, a foot and mouth case was reported.

4 Apr 2001 : Column 433

Fortunately, however, it turned out to be a false alarm. Nevertheless, 283 sheep in one herd were slaughtered, to the great anger of the farmer, and a local country park was closed. I am talking to Rotherham borough council about reopening the park because I think that many of our municipal authorities have grossly over-reacted to the situation. At times they want to be a little more Whitehall than Whitehall and a little more jobsworth than jobsworth, but it is time that our countryside was reopened.

Earlier, in describing what I think he said was his 600 square mile constituency in Lanarkshire, my hon. Friend the Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood) commented on whether people could vote. One matter that has received very little attention or publicity in this debate on when the general election might or might not be held is the quiet revolution that has occurred in democratic accessibility. The Government can be rightly proud of wiping away all the bureaucratic obstacles to obtaining a postal vote.

I do not know whether you vote any more, Mr. Speaker. I think that, constitutionally, you are still allowed to vote--although I know that you are now above such minor things as ballot boxes. Nevertheless, you, me, the Prime Minister, every hon. Member and every one of our voting citizens no longer has to go to a voting booth before 11 am or after 11 am--intoxicated by the rhetoric of Liberal Democrat candidates or otherwise--or wait until the evening to cast a vote. Now, every one of our citizens can apply for a postal vote without a cross-signature from a doctor or anyone else and cast a vote without going to a voting booth.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)--who has left the Chamber--is a great admirer of American elections, and I have had very profitable discussions with him about the American political system. In the state of Oregon, people can vote only by post. I think that, in due course, perhaps in new Labour's third or fourth term, we will be able to move to electronic voting and to cast our vote in many different ways. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Buckingham is interrupting again from a sedentary position, as is his wont. He will become a virtual Member of Parliament--small, perfectly formed, and for ever available on from Conservative central office.

I hope that there is no more cant from Conservative Members about shifting the election on 7 June off to the Greek calends. The people of this country accept that foot and mouth must be tackled. However, at the risk of making special pleading, I must tell the House that thousands of my constituents are steelworkers, and they face a bleak and miserable family future. The Conservatives utter not a word of sympathy or concern about them, and neither do their puppet masters in the press.

My steelworker constituents may ask themselves whether the constitution can be changed and elections postponed so that their needs can be considered and met. I tell them that that cannot be done. Winston Churchill went to Potsdam in May 1945 and came back a defeated Prime Minister. That great treaty was concluded by Clement Attlee, and in those days the British people--the voters of Rotherham and Buckingham--did not let a little thing like an unfinished world war stop an election.

We should have the election on 7 June. We need no more cant and excuses, nor any more cynical new clauses that are merely a way to delay matters in the interest of

4 Apr 2001 : Column 434

one party. In the next term, or in the third or fourth Labour term, we should examine the idea of fixed-term Parliaments and the matter of making postal voting and other forms of voting more accessible.

No matter what disaster befalls our nation, our strength lies in holding elections and in being the world's oldest democracy. We should not put off people's right to vote when the time comes.

Sir Patrick Cormack: The hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) is an amiable cove, as my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) charitably christened him. He has a wonderful gift for verbal dexterity, as he can talk about nothing at inordinate length. However, I have never in my life heard so much codswallop spoken in 10 minutes.

The speech by the hon. Member for Rotherham would have been amusing and diverting had he not trivialised an extremely important matter. His reference to a herd of sheep summarised his notions and knowledge of the countryside. From now on, I shall think of him as the cows' shepherd--but I will not be led by him. [Interruption.] If impertinence, discourtesy and lack of chivalry have been demonstrated, it was by the gesture that the hon. Gentleman just made, not by my joke. That is typical of the triviality with which we are dealing this evening.

The hon. Member for Rotherham mentioned news of tuberculosis in Leicester. I had not heard that news, which is, of course, very serious. I am sure that all hon. Members take it seriously. However, the hon. Gentleman went on to try and develop an argument from that, and to make the extrapolation that foot and mouth was no more serious than a common cold.

I should like to take the hon. Member for Rotherham to my constituency, and introduce him to some of the people there who are suffering. I should like him to meet the farmer who rang yesterday to tell me that he had a very modest income of £14,000 a year, and that he got it in three tranches. He said that the first tranche came when he sold his spring lambs, the second when he sold cows at Christmas, and that the third came at harvest time when he sold produce from his fields. This year, my farmer will get nothing from his spring lambs. They do not have foot and mouth, but they cannot be moved or sold, so my farmer has no income; nor is he eligible for any help from the state.

Next Section

IndexHome Page