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Lord Bassam of Brighton: The noble Earl makes a point. However, the Local Government Bill is trying to encourage the development of local mayoral systems across the United Kingdom. I believe--I am sure that this is a widely shared belief--that that is a very valid way forward. However, I cannot believe that this evening Members of the Committee are saying simply
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Does the noble Lord not appreciate that there is an enormous difference between candidates in an election with an electorate, even in parliamentary terms, of 70,000 or 80,000 and most local electorates where there will be considerably fewer than that, and an election where the electorate is over 5 million? There is a huge difference. They cannot be compared. It is not a good argument to continue to tell us that they can be compared.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I believe that there is reasonable comparison. When local government elections are held throughout the UK, they involve very large electorates. Those elections are fought on party tickets as this election will be.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Yes, the whole area may contain large electorates, but the area is divided up into several little wards where each ward has a candidate. With regard to the mayoral elections, we are talking of a ward--a constituency--of 5 million-odd electors. I suggest to the noble Lord that there is a difference of considerable magnitude.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am not here to give a lecture on electoral organisation but I suggest to the noble Lord that ward-based systems and constituency-wide organisations are the mechanisms by which the literature is delivered and by which the arguments are put across. That is where the campaigning and canvassing takes place.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: If that is the Minister's argument, why was it not good enough for the Northern Irish Assembly, the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament, the United Kingdom Parliament and the European Parliament? Why not?
I want to turn to the basic economics of the amendments. We propose that mayoral candidates should pay a deposit of £10,000. Under these amendments, for that outlay, they will be able to demand a free London-wide mailing to every elector in London. That is worth £0.75 million to be paid for by the taxpayer. That is what these amendments provide.
The potential and scope for abuse are enormous. For a £10,000 deposit, a sharp business person wishing to make use of the system could secure London-wide publicity for his particular cause, obsession or business. That is for just £10,000 as a form of deposit.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: I am sure that anybody who has commercial sense will make the best possible arrangements to secure value for money. But the point I make is that there is scope for abuse. I believe that Members of the Committee understand that and have accepted in the debate that there may be scope for abuse.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: That may well be the case but it is not allowed to vet it. The point is simply that the Post Office cannot vet the leaflet. It may well wish to see the leaflet but it certainly cannot vet its content or order it out of court, as it were.
Lord Rennard: The Post Office is under a statutory duty to vet the entire content of the leaflet. It is part of the Post Office's elections regulations that the leaflet must conform entirely with the election and with no other matter. Furthermore, will the Minister tell us how many candidates abused the system in that way during last year's European elections when exactly the same rights existed as are proposed for the London elections?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: The noble Lord makes a fair point. But the point which I make is that there is accepted scope for abuse. If Members of the Committee cannot accept that point, then they are ignoring a very important issue indeed.
Let us suppose that 20 people decide to stand for mayor and use their right to have a free mailshot to every elector. That is not beyond the realms of possibility. I am told that there have already been some 20 expressions of interest. I have made a simple and short list of the number of parties which could potentially put up a candidate for mayor. My list has 12 parties on it. I am told that more than 12 parties participated in the Scottish parliamentary and Welsh Assembly elections last year.
Lord Campbell of Alloway: I shall not ever intervene in this debate again. Perhaps I may most respectfully ask the noble Lord if it would not be wise to take this back because it is a serious matter and then it can all be considered in the light of what has been said.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I appreciate what the noble Lord has just said: that we are in Committee and that, therefore, interventions are entirely appropriate. But the noble Lord has now intervened three times in my noble friend's speech and on each occasion he has not contributed to the debate but has sought to speed up my noble friend's reply. Would it not be better for the Committee to allow my noble friend to reply to the debate?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: Perhaps we may return to the important issue of economics. I do not believe that anybody would want to get away from that fact. If just 20 candidates were to stand, we would be talking about a sum of £15 million. If 40 people were to stand, we would be talking of £30 million. There are then the constituency candidates for whom a deposit of £1000 can obtain a free mailing in their constituency. In a flash, a sum equivalent to the entire budget of the GLA would be swallowed up.
Perhaps we should remind ourselves that the first year budget for the GLA will be around £35 million. What would it be swallowed up for? It would not be for one new bus or one new train system; nor for the police or any of the vital functions of the mayor and the assembly. It would pay for leaflets through letterboxes. Can we honestly say that free mailshots for candidates would be the top priority of Londoners for expenditure of this order when so much else needs to be done with limited public funds.
Local elections do not have free mailings. The media will be covering this event in the minutest detail. There was reference to the "Stop Ken" campaign. This is not about a "Stop Ken" campaign. That is utter nonsense. I suspect that Ken Livingstone has had more publicity than any of the other candidates are likely to get throughout the run of the election. I really cannot accept that as a serious argument.
There is another point to be made. It would have been open to Members of the Committee to table amendments of this kind to the Greater London Authority Bill. As has been said forcibly, no one chose to do so. That was the appropriate time to make such amendments. There are plenty of additional matters we might have included in the Bill. Governments always have lists of things they would like to do if they have the right vehicle for them. However, nobody tabled an amendment of this kind.
Members of the Opposition should exercise restraint in this matter. They are encouraging the Government of the day to spend £30 to £35 million, maybe more, on a blank cheque to underwrite to all political parties and all others who wish to participate in this election, so that they can get a free post. We do not feel that that would be public expenditure in the best of public interest. We believe that the risk of abuse, coupled with the fact that these are local elections under local rules, would set a dangerous precedent for outside London. I urge the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
Earl Russell: Before the Minister sits down, I wonder whether I might ask him a question to which he might possibly say yes. Would he undertake to consult the Electoral Reform Society, which has some expertise in these matters, about the ways of limiting or control the abuse he fears?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: Clearly we shall take advice from all quarters. No doubt the Electoral Reform Society will provide such advice if it believes that the arguments can be substantiated. I have no doubt that if we had had earlier notice of this issue we could have come up with systems which begin to curb abuse. No doubt there are other ways in which to curb expenditure. However, those are matters of detail. It is too late in the day in this run of arguments to go into such areas.
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