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Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, is the Minister replying now to the debate?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I was about to say that, perhaps for the benefit of the debate, it might be useful if I made the Government's position clear at the outset. I hope that that helps.

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, does that mean that if we wish to intervene afterwards, Standing Orders apply and we cannot?

Lord Bach: My Lords, the Companion makes it clear that if the Minister speaks early in a debate at Report stage, other Members of the House can make a contribution, but that is limited to one speech.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for the clarification. Following the events of last Tuesday, the Government have been considering very carefully what we might do to meet the understandable wishes of your Lordships as

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regards mailshots. It is fair to say at this early stage of my comments that I am very happy with the way in which the discussions have proceeded to date. We are very grateful for the time that noble Lords opposite have given to this complex issue. It is quite tricky. I hope that, in the spirit of trying to find solutions to these problems, the discussions can fruitfully continue.

It is fair to say that we accept the principle that there should be a free mailshot for the mayoral election. The case has been well argued and well put. We can see its merits. There is no demur on that point. We need to continue careful discussions with the major players so that we can sort out the problems.

However, two issues were put very forcefully in the debate last week and earlier at Committee stage of which we need to take very careful account. One is the question of cost. I believe it is accepted by all sides that that is a consideration. It informs our approach. The other is the question of abuse. I believe there is common agreement that we limit the scope for abuse in whatever format we decide on.

There is another issue which concerns me greatly. We are now very close to the start of the election. Nominations open on 24th March, which is just three-and-a-half weeks away. In our view, we cannot do anything which puts that election at risk through an ill-thought out, overly complex and ambitious scheme. Pragmatism must rule here and be at the heart of our further discussions on this subject.

I turn briefly to the question of cost. The scheme which the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, originally proposed follows very closely that available to candidates in European elections, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. With the help of the Post Office we calculated that, based on the original propositions, a single mailshot to every London elector would cost about £750,000. If the mailshot went to every London household the cost would be £420,000. Twenty-odd candidates across the range could mean expenditure of up to £15 million. We do not believe that it would be right to hit the public purse to that extent.

Abuse is another issue. Although abuse does not occur on a large scale it is a problem. The recent parliamentary by-election at Kensington and Chelsea attracted some 18 candidates. I believe it is generally agreed that not all of them were entirely serious candidates for that seat. We believe that the mayoral race, while different, may attract those who simply want to get on to the bandwagon of publicity, perhaps for a commercial gain. For a very small outlay candidates, frivolous or otherwise, can achieve an enormous benefit by participating in what is commonly agreed to be the highest profile election to take place in the UK before the general election.

I said earlier that we were grateful for the contributions, help and guidance that we had received from other parties. We are also grateful for the time that has been given up in debating this matter. We want to ensure that we use the time available to sort out the problems in a practical and pragmatic way. I hope that noble Lords will not press their amendments

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this afternoon while we continue those discussions to try to iron out problems that have emerged during the past few days when we have focused attention on practical and pragmatic issues.

I turn briefly to the future. We propose to provide the Secretary of State with an order-making power to allow or require the GLA to arrange for the provision of information on candidates to the public in future elections. That power will be drawn extremely widely to allow for a range of possible ways to discharge that function. In the modern world we shall look at the Internet. There is also the possibility of using newspaper advertising as well as traditional mailing. We shall be unable to make use of those arrangements for this election, but we see benefits in adopting that course of action for future elections. We hope that for future elections we shall be able to provide a much better facility, but that will be for the GLA to decide. It will be for the GLA to determine the general direction of what we now call freepost.

The Government need to be convinced that any proposals are fair to all candidates--that is an important measure--that cost is reasonable and proportionate and that, in this instance, they do not jeopardise the effective and efficient running of the election. Some aspects of the proposals made by the Opposition when we last debated these matters need to be further discussed with the Post Office and mailing houses before we can make a final judgment. Those discussions, which continued up until a couple of hours before the debate this afternoon, need to continue in order to find a solution that is readily acceptable to all parties involved. I hope we can continue the discussions so that by next Monday we have an amendment to which we can all sign up that provides for an efficient and effective method to run the elections and makes adequate provision for the freepost to which all sides are committed.

With that, I trust that in a spirit of co-operation the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, will withdraw his amendment and that in turn other noble Lords will withdraw their amendments so that we can sort out these complex matters for the future.

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, I greatly welcome the statement that has just been made by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton. It is a basic principle of military tactics that if one finds oneself in an indefensible position one gets out of it as quickly as possible. The Government's position on the free mailshot has plainly been indefensible. It has had no support in the media. As for the broadsheets, the Government have been condemned by everything from the Guardian on the Left to the Daily Telegraph on the Right.

Certainly, it is to the Government's credit that they have recognised their position to be indefensible and have begun to get out of it. Agreement has not yet been reached. It is essential that negotiations should continue. However, there is not much time left. Third Reading of the Bill is due to begin on Monday and an amendment must be tabled by Thursday. A considerable number of technical issues remain to be

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settled. Those issues include the Government's proposals that messages from candidates should go out in a merged single booklet and that each candidate should have 200 words and a passport photograph. We believe that candidates should have greater freedom to decide what they want to say and how it should be laid out and that separate leaflets printed to a standard size--probably A4--should go out together collated in one envelope.

The most important outstanding issue to be decided is that which has already been touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: does the mailshot go to each household or to each elector? If one had households with just two, three or even four adults one mailshot per household would not pose any problem, but it is not as simple as that. I fought three parliamentary elections in the old constituency of Kensington. Like many other inner-London areas in particular, Kensington does not conform to the pattern of single family households. In Kensington and many other parts of central London one finds residential homes for elderly people; student halls of residence; hostels of various kinds; half-way houses for people with psychiatric problems; and houses, many of which are split up into bedsits. For the purposes of the register all of these buildings are single households, which means that post goes through one letterbox.

The mailshot will consist of one letter to the whole of the household, although there may be 10, 20 or even, in the case of student halls of residence, 100 or more individuals living in that building. People who live in multiple occupation households are the least likely to vote; they may not even know that an election is to take place. Somewhere in the back of their minds they may be aware that an election is to take place but they have forgotten the date. It may well be that a free mailshot will tip the balance and get them out to the polling station, which we all agree is an essential objective if we are to have the kind of participation in the election of the first London mayor that is needed. We regard that as a very important issue to be settled, and on this the Government have not yet gone far enough to satisfy us. Although discussions need to continue--it is my intention today to withdraw any amendment in my name so that they can proceed--they cannot yet be taken as signed, sealed and delivered.

In conclusion, the outcome vindicates the action of your Lordships' House in defeating the statutory instrument last week. The power to reject statutory instruments is one that must be exercised extremely cautiously, but there are times when it can and should be used. I believe that last week was one of those times.

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