Draft Local Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (England and Wales) Regulations 2002

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Jim Dowd: I do not know what view is held of what goes on in Lewisham in Bath, Canterbury or anywhere else. What I do know is that a proposition to change the new system was put to the people of Lewisham in a straight ballot. They were allowed to vote yes or no, and they voted yes. They have had that choice. Had they wanted to maintain the status quo they would have voted no.

Mr. Moss: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Jim Dowd: In a moment.

The hon. Member for Bath made a further point about mayors. I reacted negatively to his notion that the London borough of Lewisham is a little local authority—it is one of the most substantial in the country. None the less, the mayor in a London borough will be a substantial character. He or she will be a person of considerable import and worth. My borough is represented by three Members of Parliament, but there will be only one mayor. He or she will have much more power than any of the individual Members of Parliament. We shall hope to work with him or her, whoever it might be, in a way that will benefit the people of Lewisham.

However, the disappointing aspect of the regulations is the mix between local authority and parliamentary rules. We should have the confidence to use the freepost system. We should not constrain candidates, whoever they might be, with a simple formula that suits the returning officer. It also confuses the role of the returning officer, which is simply to adjudicate to ensure fair play between the candidates. It is up to the candidates to put forward their notions to the electorate, and to ask them to respond. It is not the returning officer's role to ensure a level playing field for all candidates. That is up to political parties and candidates. To some extent, their ability to project is a reflection of their putative support among the electorate.

I shall not object to the regulations, as we are moving into uncharted territory. However, when I vote for my local councillor and mayor on 2 May, or whenever it is, I shall do so not just as the Member of Parliament for Lewisham, West, but as a citizen of Lewisham. I want to ensure that the process is as clear, comprehensive and transparent as possible, and that, while we acknowledge that we are moving into uncharted territory, we understand experience as it unfolds. I say to the Minister, somewhat guardedly, that I would not take everything that happened in the ballot for the Mayor of London as a good guide. As the system unfolds throughout the country, I hope that we can learn from it and provide people with the best possible quality of local representation.

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5.24 pm

Dr. Whitehead: The regulations have been rigorously examined. Hon. Members are right to point out that they are detailed. Some hon. Members do not appear to have seen many movies lately, as they have been hard at work looking at the small print of the regulations. Valid points were raised that require proper consideration, but other points were more worried about than real. If hon. Members refer back to their own experiences of previous elections, they will see that the regulations about which they are worried are not that different from present procedures. The worries are placed in the context of the new form of election in British politics, and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West is correct to say that we are in uncharted waters.

I suggest to hon. Members that the regulations are a sound and sensible method of drawing together existing electoral regulations and adapting them minimally to take account of new circumstances and events that arose during the elections for the GLA and the Mayor of London. However, we have made amendments in the light of those experiences, rather than replicating them entirely. The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire raised a number of points about how the system would work. He suggested that it would be impossible to unscramble a mayoral form of local government. I assure him that the changing arrangements regulations under part 2 of the Local Government Act 2000 provide that a change may be made if consultation supports a move away from or to a mayoral system, and that is supported by a subsequent binding referendum. We are not discussing a one-way street, because the Act provides for such a change.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned his worry about the use of the supplementary voting system, and said that only Sri Lanka uses such a system. Sri Lanka may use it for all its elections, but the Government do not intend to use that system for British elections as a whole. The system will be used for mayoral elections because an area is voting for only one person. It is impossible for several candidates to be elected; only one candidate may be elected in one place. That automatically precludes several voting methods. If one assumes that it is good idea to attempt to ensure that the wishes of the electorate are reflected by the value of the votes cast, that precludes additional member systems, single-transferable votes and multi-member systems. The only alternative proportional voting system that could be considered seriously is the alternative vote. That is not as proportional as the supplementary vote because the supplementary vote redistributes the value of votes for candidates who drop out of the contest to the candidates that remain. The alternative vote does not do that entirely. I see that the hon. Member for Bath, who is knowledgeable about such matters, is shaking his head, so things cannot be entirely wrong.

I have outlined the logic behind the supplementary vote. If the hon. Gentleman believes that any form of proportional voting has no place in mayoral elections, he would not support the supplementary vote. However, he would be in favour of no other method

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that involved proportionality. Therefore, he would not suggest that other proportional methods might be better for these elections because, patently, they would not.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the cost of the booklet per candidate. I am puzzled by some of the points made about the booklet. Candidates standing in elections presumably have to print leaflets to distribute. Certainly, in the general election candidates are expected to bear the printing costs out of the global total available, and declare them in their returns after the election. The cost of postage is not an issue because it is borne by freepost. If a candidate wishes to make an address to the electorate, the cost of participating in the booklet would be approximately the same as or less than the cost of printing leaflets to distribute.

Furthermore, if candidates did not wish to participate in the booklet, they would not produce their two sides of A5, would not be in the booklet and would not be charged a proportion of the printing costs. They could make alternative arrangements to distribute leaflets.

Jim Dowd: If they chose to make their own arrangements, would candidates still be eligible for freepost?

Dr. Whitehead: My hon. Friend has anticipated my next sentence. Candidates would not be eligible for freepost if they made alternative arrangements, because freepost would be attached only to the booklet. However, it would be within a candidate's capacity to distribute literature separately from the booklet should he so wish. In any event, I imagine that candidates in an election would take part in the booklet and distribute other leaflets themselves.

Mr. Foster rose—

Mr. Brazier rose—

The Chairman: Order. To whom will the Minister give way?

Dr. Whitehead: I give way to the hon. Member for Bath.

Mr. Foster: I apologise to the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) for any confusion.

The Minister is right—the cost of an insertion into the booklet is probably considerably less than that of the type of election address preferred by most candidates and as recommended by the hon. Member for Lewisham, West. However, the Minister has failed to understand the big point—were candidates to choose to have their own election address during an election, they would get a quotation from the printer before deciding whether it represented value for money and whether that amount was what they wished to have included as part of their election expenses. The difference is not one of totality of cost but the difficulty of knowing the cost in advance and taking it into account when determining the cost of the election campaign. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that key difference.

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Dr. Whitehead: Yes, I freely acknowledge that the point made by the hon. Gentleman is a key difference. However, well before an election were held, the rules would be known to all candidates. Although the production of the booklet would be a matter between the returning officer and the candidates locally, good practice would be to ensure that the method of production and cost of the booklet would be freely known and discussed with candidates at the beginning. The idea that candidates would know the costs only immediately before the election took place flies in the face of two things: first, the way in which the election would be held, because they would have knowledge of the costs before they put their candidature forward; and, secondly, the conduct of the returning officer in conjunction with the candidates and the candidates' agents while the election took place.

Mr. Foster: The Minister said that good practice would be for the candidates to get together with the returning officer to discuss the booklet and determine an approximation of cost. Will he confirm that guidance will be given to returning officers about the conduct of the elections, that the question of the booklet will form part of that guidance and that the guidance will be publicly available to all candidates?

Dr. Whitehead: Yes, I can confirm that guidance on good practice will be given. I emphasise that it will be discussed by the returning officer and the local candidates and that there can be some leeway in the arrangements if that were agreed between them. The returning officer will be regulated by the guidelines on the overall room within which to manoeuvre.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of the content of the booklet and how the returning officer would be required to provide his or her view on it. Guidance will be along the same lines as that given to the Post Office on the content of election addresses in general elections. However, in mayoral elections, the returning officer would decide on the material to be included in the booklet. Should a candidate or one of his or her opponents disagree with the content, it would be open for that person to seek redress, including an immediate injunction in court if it were considered that the returning officer had acted wholly unreasonably when discharging his or her duties.

The hon. Gentleman also asked what the booklet would say about the ability or otherwise of candidates to attack other candidates. Clearly, under the Post Office guidelines, material would not be handled that incited racial hatred or was offensive, personally abusive or defamatory about other candidates. I imagine that the returning officer would take all such factors into account when dealing with the booklets. That would not preclude the usual material in a leaflet along the lines of, ''The other side is not good; our side is better.'' The returning officer would preclude from the booklet material that would have prevented the Post Office from using the freepost system.

 
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Prepared 24 January 2002