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Mr. Beith: Will the Under-Secretary confirm that a further problem came to light only a few weeks ago? I refer to the difficulty of obtaining consistent and practical advice--a difficulty that was faced by the Electoral Commission, among others. Some of the advice suggested that the name of every candidate in a multi-candidate election would have to appear within the imprint. In the light of that lack of consistency, surely it is necessary for some agreement to be reached before the Bill is enacted on what constitutes a proper imprint.

Mr. O'Brien: The right hon. Gentleman raised that issue when he met my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and myself. I think that that meeting occurred two weeks ago. It seemed to us that the legislation was unclear. We believe that we can deal with the matter through consultation and, if necessary, by providing clarification on the way in which we should proceed. The Bill gave us the opportunity to proceed in that manner. Clause 2 sets out how we propose to proceed in relation to election publications.

Mr. Leigh: In my experience, when a Bill is enacted, it is usually supported by at least one of the political parties that are represented in the House. The provisions

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were wrong in the first place because there was not sufficient time to consider them. The Under-Secretary will have noted that we have to finish Second Reading, the Committee stage and Third Reading by 11 o'clock. If we proceed by order and then counter-order, disorder will be the eventual result. We are now in the counter-order stage of our proceedings. Is not he worried that we might be rushing things again? Does he plan to allow the other place to give these provisions more detailed consideration? Let us get it right this time.

Mr. O'Brien: The Bill was introduced at the request of the Conservative party and of all the main political parties. We hope, therefore, that there is broad agreement on it. We have done our best to ensure that the drafting is correct. I thank the parliamentary draftsmen and officials who worked very hard at short notice to ensure that the Bill was in a proper condition to come before the House. With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like also to extend such thanks in relation to the Elections Bill, on which officials and draftsmen also worked hard.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): The Under-Secretary made it clear in his answer to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) that the existing legislation is defective and needs amendment. Why do the Government think it reasonable to amend that legislation by issuing a fiat in a Henry VIII clause, without providing any opportunity whatever for the House to consider amendments?

Mr. O'Brien: We are not repealing the legislation. If the hon. Gentleman had listened to my opening remarks, he would be aware that we are postponing commencement in relation to a part of the legislation. We still intend to proceed with new section 110 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, but only after we have had the opportunity to consult the political parties. I hope that they will engage in the consultation with more alacrity and clarity than they have in the past. The measure is not defective and we propose to proceed with it. It is a question of when we commence that process.

We could have dealt with the existing legislation in many ways. We could have said that Parliament had decided the law and that our candidates should pulp what they had done wrong. However, we did not think that such a course of action would be consistent with the consultative and open-minded approach that we sought to adopt in order to gain the support not only of other Opposition parties, but of the Conservative party. There was no opposition to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Bill. The Conservatives did not vote against it. If I remember rightly, they abstained on Third Reading and did not dissent. I think also that, a number of times, they gave broad support to the general principles of the Neill report, whose implementation they wanted. There was much in that Bill that had broad support.

It is all too easy for hon. Members to criticise our parliamentary draftsmen. Drafting is an art, and they are experienced, but not infallible. Hon. Members should be

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careful in criticising public servants who work very hard to try to ensure that they do their best for Parliament. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. There is far too much noise. The Minister is entitled to put his case.

Mr. O'Brien: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: No, I will not.

Clause 1 rescinds the commencement of section 143 of the 2000 Act and new section 110 of the 1983 Act. The natural consequence of that is to restore the position as at 16 February. In effect, it is as if the old section 110 had continued to operate after that date.

Because we still see merit in the new imprint requirements, clause 2 enables them to be reactivated by order, and it is our intention to do so in due course. I cannot at this stage offer the House a date, not least because we want to consult the Electoral Commission and political parties before we make a decision.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: Not at the moment.

I hope that all the parties and the Electoral Commission will engage in that consultation.

Clause 3 includes a saving for any election publication that complies with new section 110. That saving will apply from 16 February 2001 to the date on which new section 110 is restored. During that transitional period, local material that complies with either the old or the new section 110 will be lawful. I hope that that reassures hon. Members and political parties. Although that option is there, my advice to anyone producing new material would be to comply with new section 110 so that any stocks left over from this year's elections could be reused at a later date. Of course, many Conservative candidates may well want to try their hand again after they have lost.

The circumstances surrounding the Bill are clearly a little unusual, but it is a necessary measure to deal with--

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is there anything that you can do to protect the House in this situation? We now have 28 minutes left for the Second Reading, Committee, Report and Third Reading of the Bill, and the Minister has not yet concluded his remarks. Are you satisfied the House has sufficient time to discharge its responsibilities in the complete passage of a Bill, when the Minister is still on his feet with 28 minutes left?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): The time for which the Minister speaks is entirely a matter for him, but I hope that the whole House will bear the time very much in mind.

Mr. O'Brien: I hear what you say, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have taken many interventions because I

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wanted to ensure that hon. Members had the opportunity to contribute, but I shall accept no more because the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) takes the view that Ministers who do so should be penalised. I am trying genuinely to assist the House, and the right hon. Gentleman seeks to use that to score cheap points. That is uncharacteristic of him; normally his points are much better considered.

Given that the county council elections will occur within nine weeks if the other place agrees with the Elections Bill passed by the House, I hope that the House will understand the need for this Bill to be enacted as quickly as possible. That will require the all-party support that was evident in another place, and I hope that the Bill will receive that here.

10.34 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): It is astonishing that the Minister made no reference to the fact that all stages of the Bill were scheduled to be considered until any hour on Monday this week, when it could have been given proper scrutiny and attention. It is a disgrace that the Government are attempting to pass it in three quarters of an hour.

The Minister was right to say that the Opposition welcome the Bill. [Hon. Members: "Oh."] Well, we might want to change our minds. The Bill has cross-party support, and I know that the parties appreciate the way in which the Home Secretary has taken difficult decisions. In introducing the Bill, however embarrassing it may be for him personally or for his Department corporately, he is discharging his duties as Home Secretary.

Despite the fact that the Home Secretary is providing a solution to the problem that the political parties face, the Bill could easily be renamed the Laurel and Hardy Bill, because it is the product of yet another fine mess the Government have got us into--and have even managed to get the Labour party into. I am sure that the Home Secretary does a very good Stan Laurel, but I shall not venture to suggest who in the Department is Oliver Hardy.

As the Minister said, the Bill was tabled in response to concerns expressed by all the main parties about the changes that have been made.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: When we had discussions with the chief executive of the Conservative party, we made it clear that we were prepared to listen to representations from his party but that we did not want cheap party political points thrown around as the hon. Lady has just been doing. That cheapens debate in this place, and makes her appear more of a Laurel and Hardy figure than anyone else.


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