Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Campbell of Alloway: Perhaps the Committee will forgive a brief intervention. I was informed by the Table that I was too late to put down my name in support of the amendment. Having heard the speech of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, I do not believe that anyone could have put the case better. I ask the Minister whether he will defer to the traditions of this Chamber which on matters such as these are not motivated by party politics. The noble Earl made a fantastic contribution which was clearly delivered and wholly cogent and supportive of the speech of my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. I ask the Minister to take this back.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley: In the early 1960s I ran the organisation (if such it can be called) of the Liberal Party. I became used to fighting battles for parties which were hard done by. I believe that I, along with my colleagues, did quite well in fighting our way back. As a result, at least the Liberal and Liberal Democrat Parties were no longer under that kind of threat. However, I had personal responsibility for fighting the battle which allowed all political parties to advertise nationally. Up to that time it had been thought that that was an illegal activity. I very much regret having won the battle.

I have now moved to a party which finds itself in a worse position. Although it has very good elected representatives in Europe and the Scottish Parliament, other than myself it has no representation in Parliament. In the days when I was fighting the battles of the Liberal Party, we had at least six Members in the House of Commons. My party starts from a worse position. But we must fight for the rights of small parties, individuals and independence.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, said that there was no party political point. I have detected several party political statements during the past half hour; and my remarks may well be the same. I represent a party which has a large number of voters in this country and reckons to have, on a conservative basis, at least two, if not more, members of the Greater London council when elected.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: I was only suggesting that party political points can at times merge in sane consensus.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley: I thank the noble Lord for that intervention--I think.

If the Government believe in democracy and believe that they are giving freedom to the people of London to choose their own government--I give them the greatest respect; it is long overdue--they must give way on this point. Other Members of the Committee have said that it is an extremely important point. It is not one on which we shall give in if we can beat the

14 Feb 2000 : Column 1020

Government on it. It would be better for the reputation of the Government and of Parliament if they reconsidered the issue and returned with a provision for a more democratic election.

9.15 p.m.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: I do not understand why the amendment arises now. During the course of the GLA Bill the matter was not raised. The GLA Bill clearly laid down that the GLA was an arm of local government. No one thought then that there may not be a free post, as there is not for local government. It was at that point that people should have considered trying to amend the GLA Bill to provide that it was not an arm of local government. The Government are right to treat the GLA in the same way as they treat other areas of local government.

The point was raised about whether the Government are serious about letting Londoners pick their GLA. Are we saying that the electorate do not have the freedom to pick the local authorities they want? They do not have a freepost.

We may be establishing precedents. I should like to know whether the amendment is foreseen as a precedent. Will other directly-elected mayors be an arm not of local government but of national government because they will be allowed free post? That is the suggestion. There are so many flaws in the argument put forward.

Where are all the people who have fought elections? I do not recall any candidate delivering personally every election address in local government.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: Noble Lords were unlucky that they did not have a team of people behind them. I have fought many local elections and I can honestly say that I have never had to do that on my own; I have always had a team of people. In a serious election such as the GLA there will be teams of people doing the work. The idea that the candidate for mayor will deliver everything himself or herself is ludicrous. We all know that elections are not fought that way.

I do not accept the argument that unless we have a free post the electorate will hear nothing about the candidates for the GLA or the mayor. If one analyses recent parliamentary elections, one finds that many parliamentary constituencies have stopped using the free post because they want to use a different design. It may not fit in with the Post Office requirements. Often they will use broadsheets or other documents. The idea that the free post is sacrosanct is nonsense. We have a later amendment which refers to new technology. We all know that new technology (and certainly the telephone, which is not new technology but which may

14 Feb 2000 : Column 1021

be in election terms) is now used for elections almost entirely, and I am sure that it will be for the GLA election.

Lord Goodhart: Will the noble Baroness accept that one of the problems with telephone canvassing relates to the increasingly large proportion of people who are ex-directory?

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: That may well be true. I am ex-directory, but I seem to get a lot of telephone calls from many companies that somehow or other have access to my telephone number. If the noble Lord's point is accurate, why do the political parties spend so much of their time organising the use of the telephone as the main form of canvassing? It may well be that some people will be missed, but in the majority of cases they will be able to speak to the person concerned.

What worries me is the question of cost. If it is the case that this might cost £15 million, do the taxpayers really want us to spend our money on having a free post? I find it ironic that this comes from the Opposition, because in 1995 I suggested that we might have a rolling register and I was told by the then government that £4 million was too much to spend on a rolling register in order to increase the number of people who participate. We are now told that it is acceptable to spend £15 million in order to put an election address through everybody's door. I do not believe that the two are comparable. I therefore question whether this is the best use of ratepayers' money. I also question why this amendment has come about now, rather than on two other occasions when it could have been raised.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: I shall be very brief. I understand the argument put forward by the noble Baroness. She is a great expert in this matter. With respect, I do not wholly agree with it. That is not the question that I am putting. What on earth has it to do with this problem that this point was not taken previously--because nobody thought of it or had sufficient interest or expertise in it-- or that it is taken now? If it is right, it has to be taken.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: I raised it because the GLA Bill quite clearly laid down that the GLA was an arm of local government. I am suggesting that that may well have been the appropriate time to say that it was not the arm of local government but an entity in itself and therefore was not bound by any local government rules or regulations.

Earl Russell: The noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, tells us that many candidates now do not want to use the free post. She tells us that many people nowadays like marmalade instead. I am really not a fussy man, but I do like a little free post!

The point that the noble Baroness makes about the Greater London Authority Act is, of course, perfectly valid. We should clearly have raised this matter on that occasion, but not everybody in this House knows all

14 Feb 2000 : Column 1022

the Representation of the People Bill by heart. It has not for one moment occurred to anybody to whom I have spoken that the Government could possibly contemplate conducting the Greater London election without a free post.

The Greater London Authority Bill happens to be the longest Bill ever put before Parliament in the whole of its history. If we are guilty of committing one oversight in handling the longest Bill in parliamentary history, for the sake of amicable relations between the parties, that, although we confess it to be an error, is one of which I believe it would be ungenerous to take advantage.

The noble Baroness has also raised a serious point in asking how far this will go in other mayoral elections. Clearly, where we are dealing with the possibility of regional government, which is what the London election is, we have a category which is intermediate between the local and the national. Some agreed limit will have to be arrived at--I hope through the informal discussions between the usual channels which I raised at the beginning of my speech--about the numerical limit of electors which will entitle people to a free post. I do not believe that reaching agreement on that is beyond the wit of the political parties because, after all, we have a long tradition of reaching agreement on practical rules for the conduct of engagement. The question is a real one but it is not incapable of answer.

As for the immediate cost, there are plenty of ways in which we could approach the question of keeping it down. If that is what is really worrying the Government, let us sit down and talk about it. I am convinced that it is solvable.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page