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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. Before I come to the substance of my opening speech, I should perhaps point out that one of the earlier editions of the speakers' list circulated today suggested that I would be responding to the debate for the Government. I am happy to advise the House that my noble and learned friend Lord Williams of Mostyn will be responding for the Government on this important Bill.
The purpose of the Bill is simple to understand. On 3rd May, local elections were due to have taken place in 34 English county councils and in 11 unitary authorities. Just under two weeks later, on Wednesday, 16th May, elections were due to have taken place in all 26 district councils in Northern Ireland. The Bill would postpone all of those elections to 7th June 2001, together with any by-elections to fill casual vacancies that would otherwise have taken place in the period 3rd May to 6th June.
I shall say a little more about the detailed provisions in the Bill in a moment, but it may be helpful to your Lordships if I were first to explain why we have decided to bring it forward. I am conscious that my noble friend the Leader of the House outlined some of our thinking on Monday when she repeated a Statement which had been made in the other place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, so I hope that I can be relatively brief.
The decision to postpone local elections is not one that we in government have taken lightly. As someone who, along with many of your Lordships, has a background in local government, I am acutely conscious of the importance of local elections. They are, after all, the means by which local people hold those who govern in their name to account. Nevertheless, the Government have received very strong representations that the local elections should be postponed as a consequence of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease; and we have paid very close attention to those representations.
As my noble friend said on Monday, our judgment was that, from a purely practical and administrative point of view, the elections could have gone ahead as scheduled. The buildings in which polling stations are located are, almost without exception, accessible by the public highway, which remains open; indeed, it is the case that, with only a tiny handful of exceptions, schools and libraries and other public buildings have remained open during the crisis, even in the worst affected areas.
Having said that, there is a world of difference between it being possible to run elections and it being desirable to do so. Both central and local government are devoting massive efforts and resources to seeking to combat and eradicate foot and mouth disease. It is quite clear that holding local elections in the middle of this work would be a distraction which would serve no useful purpose in the long-term battle to get on top of this outbreak.
We have also paid very close attention to the representations of those who have been most directly affected by foot and mouth disease. They have made it abundantly clear that they would consider it both unnecessary and insensitive to hold local elections next month. Accordingly, we have come to the view that, on balance, the national interest would best be served by deferring the elections that are due to be held next month.
I am not going to pretend to your Lordships that foot and mouth disease will be completely eradicated in a month's time. The experience of the outbreak in 1967 suggests that it will be many months before this country is completely free of foot and month disease. It is the case, however, that the next month will be crucial in our efforts to get on top of the outbreak. We need to ensure that we have proper mechanisms in place that enable us to deal with suspected cases instantly and ensure that the time between diagnosis of a case and slaughter of the animals affected is as short as possible. I hope that in the next month it may be possible to say that some of the areas which have had confirmed cases of foot and month disease are now free of it.
There is also another important consideration. We cannot ignore the needs of the tourism industry. It is a striking fact that for every 1 per cent of gross domestic product that comes from agriculture, 7 per cent of our GDP is generated by tourism. The tourist industry is
If we were to postpone the local elections indefinitely, as I believe the Official Opposition have suggested, the signal that we should be sending to the rest of the world is that Britain is in a terrible state and that we have no idea when things will get better. By setting a fixed date when these elections will take place, we are showing the rest of the world that we believe that within a month we shall have in place the mechanisms to ensure the eventual eradication of this disease and that Britain is open and ready to receive visitors for the all-important summer season. Noble Lords may be interested to hear what Malcolm Bell, of South West Tourism, said when the announcement was made on Monday. His words were:
I should add, as many noble Lords recognised in the exchanges following the Statement repeated by my noble friend on Monday, there needs to be certainty. Local authorities, councillors, candidates and those who interact with local authorities need to be clear as to when the deferred elections will take place.
Having explained why we have brought the Bill forward, perhaps I may briefly explain its provisions. Clause 1, which applies to England and Wales, has the effect of postponing the ordinary local elections that were due to take place on 3rd May 2001 until 7th June 2001. It also, as I have indicated, provides that any local government by-elections to fill casual vacancies that would have been held within the period of the deferral will also take place on 7th June.
There are also a number of consequential provisions. The clause provides that candidates who were validly nominated before the nominations closed for the elections on 3rd April, two days ago, will remain validly nominated for the new elections without the need to submit fresh nomination papers.
However, candidates will have until 15th May to withdraw their nomination papers if they do not wish to contest the elections on the new date, and it will be possible for anyone else to submit nomination papers by 10th May. These dates are calculated, with reference to 7th June, using the normal local election timetable. For the sake of completeness, I should say that the closing date for postal vote applications will be 5 p.m. on Wednesday 30th May.
We recognise that even though, as I have just said, nominations for these elections only closed on Tuesday, after it had been announced that they would be postponed, some candidates may have already printed their leaflets. It is possible that some of these may be redundant: if, for example, they said something like "Vote Bassam on 3rd May"--it has never happened before, but one never knows. In recognition of this and of the fact that the campaign period will inevitably be longer than normal for the elections on 7th June, the election expenses limit for each candidate is raised by 50 per cent.
Much of the rest of the Bill, including the schedule, relates to Northern Ireland. The purpose of these provisions is to provide that if the general election and local elections fall on the same day, the polls in Northern Ireland can be combined, as they are on the mainland. Let me hasten to say to your Lordships that I am making no statement or prediction about the likely date of the general election. That is a matter for my right honourable friend the Prime Minister.
Section 15 of the Representation of the People Act 1985 provides that, where local and parliamentary elections fall on the same day, the polls can be combined. That is to say, voters can attend the same polling place and use the same polling station to cast their vote for two or more elections at the same time. That provision was never extended to Northern Ireland. The reason for that is that Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote electoral system in local government elections and it was thought that it might be too confusing if polls were combined when different electoral systems were in use.
However, we have had recent experience in Scotland and Wales of combined polls, where two or more electoral systems were in use and it is evident that it has not caused undue confusion to the electorate; nor have we seen a significant increase in the number of spoilt ballot papers. That being the case, there seems no reason why polls should not be combined in Northern Ireland, should the two elections fall on the same day, and we are therefore taking this useful opportunity to provide for that.
Detailed consequential changes to the parliamentary and local election rules are required. These are what the schedule contains. However, I can assure your Lordships that they simply mirror provisions already in force in Great Britain. Where they do not, it is as a result of consultations with electoral administrators.
I now turn to Clause 6. We recognise that local authorities, which are responsible for meeting the costs of local elections, will inevitably have incurred expenditure in preparing for elections on 3rd May and possibly, to a lesser extent, for elections on 16th May. They will also be obliged to go on incurring expenditure--for example, on printing ballot papers--until this legislation receives Royal Assent, which is why we are keen that it should reach the statute book with all due speed. We are very grateful for your Lordships' co-operation in that regard.
I have outlined briefly the purpose of the Bill for your Lordships. As I indicated at the beginning of my remarks, in deciding to bring it forward we had to balance many competing interests and factors. Our conclusion was that it would not be appropriate to hold elections next month, but that all concerned--local authorities, candidates and those who deal with local authorities--need the certainty of knowing when the deferred elections will take place. That is what this Bill gives them.
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