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Lord Rennard: My Lords, yes, indeed. I thought that I was specific on that point, but I was not sufficiently clear and I apologise. That has been the long-standing policy of the Liberal Democrats, and would provide considerable assistance during situations such as this.
Lord Rennard: My Lords, as there is no written constitution for this country, the situation has not yet arisen. I am not sure how many overseas countries have written constitutions. However, the United States, for example, has a fixed period of four years for
Lord Greaves: My Lords, I believe that the constitutions of the states of the United States specify when the state elections should be. That is relevant to what my noble friend said. My noble friend Lord Rennard said much of what I had intended to say, so I can make a shorter speech.
It is clear that there is considerable unease about the Bill among Members on these Benches. My noble friend Lady Hamwee said that as a balance must be struck between the arguments she had come down on one side. That is the view we shall take and the way we shall vote during the passage of the Bill.
It is right and proper that concern and disquiet should be expressed about the way in which the date of public elections was unilaterally changed by the Prime Minister at almost a moment's notice and in the knowledge that he could use his parliamentary majority in another place to ensure that that was agreed. Would we be discussing the Bill here today if there were not a general election in the offing? The answer is probably not.
We might well have been discussing a Bill about Northern Ireland, because it is clear that the Northern Ireland sections of the Bill have been in preparation for more than a couple of days. It is equally clear that the sections which refer to England and Wales were put together on the back of a fag packet, or whatever people use in these non-smoking days, in the couple of days before the Bill went to the Commons.
We might indeed have been discussing the kind of measure suggested by my noble friend Lord Rennard and the noble Lord, Lord Norton; that is, the ability of the Government to postpone the local council elections in areas where there is serious difficulty. No one who knows Cumbria could argue that a postponement of elections there does not have a great deal of merit.
The Bill postpones all the by-elections which are scheduled from 3rd May onwards. However, there does not appear to be a great need to postpone the pending by-elections in Islington or the middle of Manchester. I do not suggest that the Government have paid attention to the fact that the Liberal Democrats are likely to win those two seats from the Labour Party, but that will probably be the case whenever the elections are held.
By-elections have been taking place since the foot and mouth outbreak began and they will take place today. They will continue to take place in dribs and drabs until 3rd May when suddenly they will stop.
There are strong alternative views within local government in many parts of the country. They were expressed, for example, by the Labour leader of Cheshire County Council and by the leader of the Labour controlled Lancashire County Council where I live. I hesitate to suggest that I speak for them in any way, but it is right that those reservations should be expressed here today.
Issues of principle are involved when politicians postpone scheduled elections. Not for the first time, this House should be grateful for the presence here of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, who can better express these matters from his expertise and intelligent observation. I look forward to reading his speech in Hansard and I hope that the Government do, too. I hope that it will be taken as a first stage in the establishment of principles on which such decisions can be made in future.
There is an irony, perhaps a paradox, that in this country it is being suggested that if we have a severe national crisis the answer is postponing democratic elections. Together with the rest of Europe and the United States, we are telling people that if they have severe crises in their countries they should hold democratic elections because that is part of the answer to crises. We would have been horrified if Milosevic had been able to postpone the elections in Serbia.
Bosnia lurches from crisis to crisis almost by the day. Part of the answer which is being pressed on Bosnia by the international community is to hold more elections. In the past few years since the Dayton agreement, Bosnia has held more elections than any other democratic country. If we are sending a message to people such as President Mugabe that the answer is to postpone elections when things become difficult, we have a problem. If while we are telling the rest of the world, "If you have severe crises, rely on democracy to help sort them out", we are seen to be going against that advice, there is an irony and perhaps an illogically.
It is not clear why the Government believe that the census can go ahead when elections cannot. It is not clear why the Government are telling tourists that the countryside is open and that they should go to the countryside. I read in the newspapers that Labour MPs are being forbidden to go to foreign countries for the Easter holidays and are being told that anyone seen in the South of France, for example, will be severely reprimanded. I can promise them that I shall be in the South of France and I shall report anyone I see there. If the message is that the countryside is open but people cannot do something as simple as casting their vote, there is a lack of reason.
There are serious concerns. Certainly, the Government will get the message that they are unlikely to receive support from our party if the postponement goes beyond 7th June. Having said that, it is clear that this Bill will pass into law.
I should declare an interest. I am involved in organising our local election campaigns, which have already started. Not only have we printed leaflets bearing the date 3rd May but we have delivered them through letterboxes. That gives us an excuse to print some more leaflets to tell people that, after all, the election will be on 7th June. But our party has never been averse to printing more leaflets.
Another concern is expenses. I agree with the point raised by my noble friend Lady Hamwee about rich and poor parties. But there is also a concern that if campaigns are to last much longer even the revised expense limit for those who print lots of leaflets will not be enough. I am advised that if there is a deferred election because of the death of a candidate the expense limit is doubled to allow for the re-election. I would have thought that a doubling of the expense limit was more sensible than a 50 per cent increase. However, 50 per cent is welcome.
There is also a question about the inspection of nomination papers and consents to nomination. That may not be something which a lot of people do in this country, but in parts of the world where there is experience of electoral fraud and forgery that happens. There is provision in Rule 9 of the Local Elections (Principal Areas) Rules 1986 for the inspection of nominations which have been submitted following nomination day. The question is: which nomination day now applies to that? Can nominations which were submitted and accepted before nomination day two days ago now be inspected, or does one have to wait until after the next nomination day in early May?
Finally, I am confused--perhaps it is my fault--about the particular electoral registers which are involved in these elections. It is clear from the circular sent out that the register which tells one who is qualified to vote is the new rolling register to be published in early May. I am not clear about the qualification for signing nomination papers for these
If there is to be a new document to amend the Local Elections (Principal Areas) Rules for England and Wales when is it likely to be available? How extensive do the Government believe the required changes to the rules will be?
Viscount Goschen: My Lords, I welcome the introduction of the Bill as the right thing to do in dire circumstances, but I strongly believe that the Government made the decision about whether or not to delay the local elections a great deal more difficult for themselves than it needed to be. Undoubtedly, they have let the timing of the general election cloud the issue of whether or not the local elections should be postponed. To the extent that Ministers backed themselves very deeply into a corner by making dire predictions of what would be the consequences for the tourism industry of this country if the elections were delayed, that is precisely what has happened. They have ended up with the worst of all worlds. Had they not concentrated so heavily on the timing of the general election and its relationship to the local elections, the decision could have been taken a great deal earlier with less collateral damage to the tourism industry, which we greatly support and seek to shore up under very difficult circumstances.
The House should be under no illusions about the constitutional importance of moving elections, be they general elections or local elections. My noble friend Lord Norton of Louth covered those issues in considerable detail, and I am sure that the House is greatly in his debt. However, this debate emphasises the importance of your Lordships' House in terms of discussing constitutional arrangements. Although it is a convention of this House that it does not discuss what goes on in another place, it is clear from the thinness of Hansard that the guillotine was applied. It would be very difficult to argue that a thorough debate took place in the House of Commons and that every Member who wished to speak was able to put his view on this extraordinarily important and constitutionally significant issue. The debate was guillotined and the Bill sent here with all speed.
We have the ability to conduct our debates in this Chamber at our own speed. It is clear that, while the Government could well have taken a decision without all-party support in another place and got the measure through, in your Lordships' House they would have had very much more difficulty if they not been able to secure that support. As my noble friend Lady Young pointed out, when one comes to consider the question of the potential postponement of general elections, as in the past your Lordships' House has a very important role to play. Now that the decision has been taken to delay the local elections until 7th June, I urge
We are told that two clear criteria led to the postponement of the local elections: the need for politicians to focus on handling the epidemic and the feelings and sensitivities of those most directly affected. Clearly, no Minister will now stand up and make predictions about exactly where the epidemic will be in two, three or four weeks' time, or by 7th June. We do not know how much time will be required by local and central government politicians to continue to focus on handling the epidemic. It is also clear that even by 7th June both central and local government will be required to undertake a very great management task.
As to the second criterion, it is not difficult to predict that the feelings and sensitivities of those most directly affected, who have had their livelihoods taken from them in the most extraordinarily trying circumstances, will still be considerable on 7th June. The suggestion of my noble friend would at least provide a measure of flexibility. I agree with members of the Liberal Democrat Party who have said that they do not want to sign blank cheques in relation to the postponement of elections. Given the position of your Lordships' House, as I mentioned earlier, over postponing elections, clearly that is not something which this House would want to do without some very carefully defined criteria about the circumstances in which additional delay is created. I say no more about that beyond urging the Government not to stick to 7th June, chosen for no particularly obvious, scientific or closely argued reason. It was a date supplied to the Sun newspaper last Friday.
Perhaps I may raise a few points of detail. If the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams, does not have time to respond, I shall be very happy to receive a letter from him. Clause 1 deals with the circumstances of candidates who have already been nominated. Can the Minister confirm the situation as regards new candidates who have not already registered? The explanatory notes say that the deadline for new candidates in England and Wales will be extended to 10th May, but I do not see that in Clause 1. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord can put me straight on that.
As regards an additional expenditure allowance or allowing candidates to spend up to 50 per cent more, there is a provision in the Bill which states that whenever such candidates were nominated, if they have not already done so, they would have an advantage in being able to spend 50 per cent more than their opponents who might well have already spent their additional 50 per cent. I wonder what is the argument for allowing candidates, who have not yet put themselves forward, still to be able to spend 50 per cent more. Perhaps I am not correct on that.
Clause 7 gives a fairly wide power for the Secretary of State to bring forward consequential, transitional or supplemental provisions. It would assist the House if the Minister were able to indicate, not exactly what the measures would be, because they would be defined, but the type of areas which would be covered by the provisions. I raise these detailed points at this stage to enable the Committee stage to proceed more quickly. However, I welcome the introduction of the Bill although with a sense of deep regret at the terrible circumstances which led to it.
Lord Hanningfield: My Lords, as many noble Lords will know, I am the leader of Essex County Council and therefore have a direct interest in the elections. I am standing again. I have already printed my leaflets. Therefore, I have already incurred some expense. But I am not asking for compensation for that. I agree with noble Lords who have said today that candidates should not be reimbursed for expenses already incurred, but certainly councils' expenses should be reimbursed. I may return to that in a moment.
Essex was the first county with an outbreak of the foot and mouth disease. It was first found there. I live in a village which had one of the first signs saying, "You are now entering a foot and mouth restricted area". For many weeks I have been saying that we should know what we are doing. There has been total confusion in local government over the past few weeks. Although the position has now been clarified by the Government, I wish that that had been done earlier. I have many friends in Devon and Cumbria, and it was quite apparent two or three weeks ago that there could be no county council elections in those counties. I come from a farming background and I know of the chaos and crisis in those two counties. In the rural counties, such as Devon and Cumbria, most local government members represent the countryside.
Several noble Lords have referred to the confusion and I, too, should like to concentrate on it. I am the leader of a council which had planned an annual meeting. I ask the Minister to clarify the situation as regards such meetings. Clearly, there can be no annual meetings of councils with elections pending until after those elections have taken place. Therefore, it should be stated in the Bill that the annual meetings of councils with forthcoming elections should be held afterwards. I gather from the Explanatory Notes that the measure is designed for all councils because there may be by-elections which affect the balance of power in such councils. Any council can now have its annual meeting in June, but I should like clarification of when
Management of a county will be very difficult for the next month or two because, as has already been said today, by the end of June we have to submit our proposals for the new modernisation agenda. I hope that the Government will allow some latitude in the dates because if we are not to have elections until early June, and if we have our annual meeting in the middle of that month, it will be impossible to submit proposals to the Government by the end of June for the reform of local government structures. I hope that the Government will comment on that.
My noble friend Lady Young spoke about meetings. We had some planned for the new council after May. As the leader of the council, I shall have to consider how we can manage the business of the council until we have an annual meeting in June. It is difficult because in Essex the Labour leader is retiring and many of my most able councillors are not standing again, mainly because of age. All three parties will have quite a change-over of county councillors. Many of them have planned holidays and visits with their wives to see their children. There is quite a difficult management problem for my county over the next few months. Both my noble friend Lady Young and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, referred to this matter. I hope that the House will understand our difficulty.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth and with my noble friend Lady Young that this Bill raises constitutional issues. We have had certainty in local government about elections. Now, for the first time in my 30 years' experience, it is being changed. I support the Bill because of the crisis in the country, but this is something which we would not wish to see again. I hope that we can do something about the constitutional arrangements for the local government elections so that there is some certainty about our election dates. I support the Bill at this stage, but I wish that we had had it earlier.
Lord Fitt: My Lords, I shall speak specifically about Northern Ireland. Over the past four years since 1996 and the alleged IRA ceasefire, a great deal of legislation has passed through your Lordships' House in direct contradiction of what was taking place in other parts of the United Kingdom. We were told that Northern Ireland was different: the political circumstances and the terror campaign together put Northern Ireland in a different category from the rest of the United Kingdom.
In this Bill we now have the assertion that we must not draw a distinction between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom because of the foot and mouth disease outbreak. As has already been said, there has been one case of foot and mouth disease in Northern Ireland. The disease has been contained due to the excellent work of the Minister of Agriculture in Northern Ireland.
We have heard the Prime Minister say repeatedly that to postpone elections would send out the wrong signal to potential tourists. At this time of the year Northern Ireland is influenced to a great extent by the number of tourists it can attract to its shores.
It would be the wish of the majority of the people in Northern Ireland that they be allowed to hold their local government elections on 16th May as scheduled. Therefore, one must ask whether these local government elections are being postponed because of foot and mouth disease. The answer to that is an emphatic "No". Many by-elections have been held over the past 30 turbulent years. People have been killed because of their religion, the way they speak and the way they vote.
In the wake of internment being introduced in August 1971 there was a real crisis in Northern Ireland. In 1972 many nationalists resigned their local authority seats in protest at the way that internment had been introduced. That did not stop the elections. The then Conservative Government allowed elections to take place. They said that they could not stop the elections taking place. That meant that bigoted unionists, who were totally opposed to the nationalist beliefs of those who had resigned their seats, walked in and took seats on an unopposed return. That was a clear violation of the democratic wishes of the people in those local government areas.
Nineteen seventy-two was one of the worst years of the Northern Ireland troubles. Over 472 people were killed in that year. Early in that year one of my party colleagues in the dock area of Belfast, in which I was also a councillor, resigned his seat. That meant that there had to be a by-election. I spoke to the Minister in charge of Northern Ireland at the time. I said to him, "Could we not postpone this election?" because if we did not it would mean that a unionist who was diametrically opposed to my political beliefs would take that seat. I decided that we could not let them have that seat. What happened then was that I could not get a candidate to fight the seat. The IRA threatened that whoever was to stand for it would be killed. In fact at the last minute I had to put forward my wife.
Lord Biffen: My Lords, this mini debate is but a token of what it should be, but it is infinitely greater than what was offered by the other place when considering the measure. It is a matter of constitutional import. The speech by my noble friend Lord Norton emphasised that. I should like to try to underline some of his comments. It is a simple test. Imagine that this was taking place not just ahead of a general election but just after a general election. Suppose we then had the foot and mouth epidemic and we had ahead of us the local authority elections. I cannot believe that a government would argue that those elections should be postponed.
The whole history of life is this determination to hold elections come what may. During the war there may have been a party truce but there was never a suspension of the by-elections, many of which carried a message that reverberated across the nation and to the fighting front. What is proposed is not what would have been suggested in the alternative theoretical circumstances outlined. What would have been suggested would have been a means of identifying in Devon and in Cumbria where there should be special arrangements. Maybe there were special arrangements nationally to make voting that much easier. We have those circumstances now. Just as for the 1945 general election--there may be problems of hybridity--special arrangements could have been designed for those areas acutely affected by the foot and mouth disease. The Lancashire seats affected by Wakes Weeks were given different voting occasions from the general election that took place in the spring of that year.
The problem has arisen because of the proximity of the local authority elections and the intended chosen date for the general election. It is not so much because of the problems which will affect an election in the areas of the foot and mouth disease, dire though they will be, I do not deny. I cannot believe that the Government would not secure quite a high turn-out in the areas affected because the voters will wish to make their opinions known and their political influence felt. I do not think that we would have a situation where there was a minimal vote in the areas affected by foot and mouth, although I agree that their differences should be recognised.
What is at stake here is the welcome decision by the Prime Minister to see that this foot and mouth scourge required national political leadership. It required his identification with the scourge and with all the plans that had to be co-ordinated to give most effect to countering it. He could not set that role aside as a part-time occupation in order to lead a party in the general election. Nor could he put to one side the task of being the supremo in fighting foot and mouth to take time off to fight a general election.
That is the background to this device. That is the real underlying constitutional case to be considered. We are being asked to nod this legislation through. I shall nod it through. But the time will come when the annals of these two or three days' debates will be looked at by students outside this place and people concerned with our constitutional liberties. They will see that we have been sleepwalking and it is only in this place that there is any reasonable voice raised to alert us to the danger.
The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, explained in introducing the Bill that there had been no problems in Scotland and Wales in voting on the same day on two electoral systems. Therefore, it was thought that it was quite possible to do that in Northern Ireland.
As someone who was on duty outside quite a large busy polling station on the day when the Scots Parliament and local government were elected on different election systems there were problems for some people. It may be helpful to the Government if I point out those problems now before we come to Monday and the Committee stage.
The problems were twofold. The first problem was that some voters came thinking that they were taking part in a single poll for two different bodies. They knew what the two bodies were. They thought it was a single poll. They were confronted with two ballot papers, which surprised them. They thought they had to vote for the same party on both papers. Some were confused because their particular view about the election was that they wanted to vote for different parties. Confusion could have been avoided if there had been an official explanation that this was not the case. The parties had been saying it and it had been aired in the media quite often. Nevertheless, a significant number of people were confused by that.
I raised the other problem during the passage of the Scotland Bill. I was told that it would not happen, but it did. I refer to the colour coding which involved two different colours for the two bodies which were to be elected. That is what is planned in the Bill. It was difficult for people who were colour blind. The reason for that was that colours had to be found for the ballot papers that were not associated with political parties. The colours with which we ended up were difficult for voters--it turned out that it was mostly male voters--to distinguish between. It was a real problem because not only were the ballot papers different but the ballot boxes were marked with the same colour as that which was on the ballot paper. I do not know whether it should be legislated for, but the Government need to ensure that the colours are bright and of a kind which are distinguishable by people who have that problem.
Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest in this matter in that I am a member of Suffolk County Council. As a local authority member, I was warmed by the sudden focus on and interest in the county council elections. I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate and have made such interesting contributions from a variety of perspectives. In that regard, I am especially grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, and to my noble friend Lord Smith of Clifton for focusing on the provisions in the Bill relating to Northern Ireland, which actually form the bulk of it but have received rather less attention than they would otherwise have deserved.
When I was re-elected to the county council in May 1997, I knew exactly how long my term of office would be and was able to pencil into my diary the date of the election. As my noble friend Lord Rennard pointed
In practical terms there is no reason why the elections could not have gone ahead. The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, conceded that point at the beginning of the debate. Of the 24 million people who are represented by county and unitary authorities affected by this legislation, a relatively tiny number of people would have serious reason to suppose that their participation in the democratic process would be significantly hampered by the election being held on 3rd May. Postal deliveries are carrying on almost unaffected, suggesting that political parties would be able to deliver their leaflets. Indeed, by recognising the longer campaign and extending the expenses limit accordingly, it is likely that more people will be walking around the countryside delivering more pieces of paper in this extended campaign. People in rural areas are still getting out and about to work, school and shops, and would therefore have been able to vote. In fact, as my noble friend Lord Greaves pointed out, the fact that the census is still due to take place demonstrates that the reasons for delaying the election are not based on practical considerations.
The real reason is to provide a fig leaf for the otherwise appropriate decision not to go ahead with the general election on the date which, if the media are to be believed--it appears that the Sun usually is--was pencilled in as long ago as 1997. While I agree that holding a general election during a crisis of this kind would have been highly undesirable, I am less than happy to think that the Government's unwillingness to hold national elections after a set of potentially bad local election results has in any way influenced their decision to delay local elections. There is every difference in the world between choosing not to exercise the Prime Minister's right to set his own date for the election and a decision to postpone dates which are fixed.
What really concerns me is the proposal from the noble Lord, Lord Cope, that the legislation should provide an open-ended delay. In my view, that would represent an entirely unjustifiable and dangerous control by the executive over local democratic processes and must be resisted at all costs. There are serious practical implications from this step. Local authorities are big business. My own authority in Suffolk is the largest employer in the county, with some 23,000 full-time equivalent staff. The various budgets come to over £1 billion a year. Local authorities are run like businesses, with planning and budgetary frameworks that affect the lives of people in
The uncertainty created by the open-ended delay proposed would be horrendous and would have serious practical results. For example, in Suffolk the structure plan is due to be determined within the next few weeks, creating the framework within which many thousands of new homes will be built in the county. It is a decision worth billions of pounds. As the noble Baroness, Lady Young, pointed out, the development control planning system could be severely hindered by such delays. As the noble Baroness has recognised that, it seems strange that her Benches support open-ended delay. Some 25 per cent of councillors are due to stand down in May. While they may be prepared to hang on for another four weeks, any delay beyond that will see the gradual erosion of their numbers, leaving large areas of the country unrepresented at county and unitary level. In finely balanced authorities, political control could change without a single vote being cast anywhere. That would be a travesty of democracy.
Even with a one month delay, there are some serious issues to be addressed, either today or in Committee on Monday. As we have heard, annual general meetings are due to take place in May, as are those of the police authorities and combined fire authorities. Those are all affected by the delay. I should like some clarification today as to how these changes will be managed.
Councils are due to make their final decisions about the new structures required under the Local Government Act. That must be done by June. That means that new councils, with around a third of their number being new councillors, and with many having changed political control altogether, will be asked to take these important decisions within days of an election. Will the Government consider a dispensation for those authorities affected by the legislation so that they can make their structural changes later, perhaps by the end of July?
Local councils are currently in a pre-election purdah, which affects the style of their public announcements and the way in which public relations are dealt with. Is that purdah to be lifted after Royal Assent and then reintroduced, or will it remain indefinitely?
We on these Benches are greatly concerned about compensation for individual candidates and hope that we can have some clarification on that issue, either today or in Committee on Monday. We should like to press the Government to give more thought to the issue of freepost leaflets for council elections.
My noble friend Lady Hamwee said that the issues are finely balanced. I am very grateful indeed to the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for giving us an intellectual framework within which we can consider the issues. On balance, we will support the legislation. We will not impede it in any way. However, we have significant reservations. Some of them may be addressed through discussion today and on Monday, but others will remain a difference between us.
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. I am bound to point out that, apart from the noble Lord on the Front Bench opposite, the burden of the debate has been borne by the Liberal Democrats and the Official Opposition. There has been a distinct lack of interest from elsewhere. The contributions to the debate have been of an extremely high standard. I am sure that the Government will take particular note of that.
My noble friend Lord Cope said that it is an extraordinary Bill. As the debate has proceeded, those words have seemed prescient. Running throughout the debate has been a very real cynicism as to why the Bill has been brought forward at all. Of course there are problems over the county council elections and the proper democratic processes, but the fact that the election postponement was first seen in the Sun was a poor way for the matter to have been dealt with. There are other and more appropriate places for the announcement of the postponement of elections to be made. It might have been better if both Houses of Parliament had been given the benefit of the Prime Minister's thoughts on the matter before the press were able to announce the decision with such fervour and vigour.
The Bill delays the county council elections, but we have all agreed today that it concerns not only those elections. The only rational reason why the Bill has been introduced is because the Prime Minister wishes to delay the general election. Of course that rationale came about after he had made a field trip into the country and finally, I believe, saw for himself the terrible constraints under which people in rural areas are operating at present. I do not think that anyone would want to deny the difficulties, concerns, problems, unhappiness and misery affecting many parts of the country. Not all regions are affected, but where there are problems from foot and mouth disease, those are very real.
Furthermore, no one would want to deny the difficulty of trying to manage the democratic process for people living in the affected parts of the country. Those problems, too, are very real indeed. As has already been pointed out, several candidates are farmers, who are now stuck behind their five-bar gates displaying notices stating, "Come no further. Foot and mouth disease". They would find it extremely hard to canvas effectively or to fulfil their democratic duties. Equally, it would be hard for people to get to them to ensure that they can receive material relating to the democratic process, even if they are not directly taking part in it.
But why will all this be over by 7th June? Why has that date been plucked out as the day by which everything will have been brought under control? The situation as regards foot and mouth disease will have improved to such an extent that the Prime Minister will be able to say with full confidence that all the problems that existed for 3rd May will not equally exist for 7th June. That is the reason why my party has suggested that to put a final date of 7th June on to the
The debate has covered not only the merits or demerits of the Bill, it has also touched on the extremely important constitutional issues which have been raised by what is being proposed. The postponement of an election in this country, one of the seats of democracy, is more than unusual; it is an absolutely unique occasion. My noble friend Lord Norton, along with the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and, to an extent, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, have all underlined--along with my noble friend Lady Young--the real concerns that have been raised about the constitutional issues relating to delaying elections. I am certain that that does not have to be emphasised in this House, but I hope that this will be taken on board and that such an event will not take place again without all the detail of such an expediency being worked out very carefully indeed.
Apart from the problems associated with foot and mouth disease, the matter of tourism has been raised in our debate. I know that this formed part of the important debate held yesterday in your Lordships' House. Not only are farmers affected by the foot and mouth outbreak, tourism also is suffering, in particular in those areas which normally welcome many tourists at this time of year. Tourism has been high on the agenda of Ministers going around the country and I understand that it has formed an important part of the rationale behind the Bill. Of course we accept that that aspect of this situation must be taken into account.
The practical issues relating to the delay have been spelt out very well. We are lucky to have in this House a number of noble Lords who not only will be standing in the local elections, but who have great experience of them. I refer to the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, my noble friend Lord Hanningfield and the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy. They have drawn attention to all the details that must be attended to. Those points were also mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, who probably knows more about elections that the rest of the House put together. The practical issues surrounding this decision should not be underestimated; they are serious and they need to be dealt with properly.
I take some issue with the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, who seemed to suggest that the Conservatives believe that everyone should benefit from swathes of compensation as a result of what has gone wrong. That is not the case and never has been.
A great part of the Bill is devoted to Northern Ireland. We were lucky that the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, was in his place and was thus able to speak in the gap. We are grateful for his contribution, as we are to the noble Lord, Lord Smith. Had the noble Lord not spoken, those provisions would have passed without notice, and two-thirds of the Bill would have been without comment. That is why we need the experience of Northern Ireland Members. I hope that we shall have the benefit of that experience again when we consider the Bill in Committee on Monday. That will ensure that the provisions relating to Northern Ireland will be thoroughly scrutinised.
I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, made an extremely powerful speech, explaining to the House how Northern Ireland has survived over the past years and how the democratic processes over here have not always made it easy for those in Northern Ireland. I hope very much that the noble Lord will be able to come to the House on Monday. As other speakers have said, we need to scrutinise this Bill as carefully as possible. It is vital that this House undertakes the duty--the time for which was not allocated in the other place--of examining the detail of this legislation. In this country a Bill of this magnitude--however short it may be--cannot be seen to go through without having been given the most careful thought. We must ensure that it is put forward correctly, all the issues having been taken into account.
From this side of the Chamber we shall certainly do that--no doubt many other noble Lords will join us--to ensure that the Bill, to which ultimately we shall agree, has been made clear in its detail. Our agreement to it has been clearly stated by the Leader of the Opposition in the other place and by my noble friend Lord Cope. However, we do not believe that such a Bill, and in particular one which has so many question marks over the reasoning behind it, should simply coast through both Houses.
The Attorney-General (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, as the House knows, I have had a very long connection with Wales and with those who farm in Wales. The troubles that have afflicted our colleagues who are concerned with farming all over the United Kingdom were reinforced when a number of us made the rather sad journey to Anglesey for the funeral of
The two characteristics that struck me in listening to the debate--I have had the pleasure of hearing every speech--were that one finds not only expertise in this House but also independence of mind and thought. Both characteristics are sometimes inconvenient to someone in my position, but not on this occasion.
It seemed to me that the debate separated itself into two constituents. First, there were some heavy-hitting contributions on wider constitutional matters. I agree that they are not to be overlooked simply because we are dealing with local, rather than national, elections. The second constituent concerned particular points of question.
The noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, with his customary courtesy, said that it might be helpful if particular questions of detail were answered in writing. Other noble Lords took the same approach. I shall take up that offer, if I may. I am not a Home Office Minister, but I undertake on behalf of the Home Office that all questions will be answered--probably, I hope, in a compendious letter, which should go out tomorrow--so that we will, if at all possible, have settled some outstanding issues before we come to the Committee stage. A number of your Lordships suggested that as a sensible outcome, and that will be done.
A number of questions were asked as to why postponement was necessary at all. I detected incipient schizophrenia in some of the speeches, which seemed to be uncertain as to whether this was a good idea or something to be abominated at all costs. How those different approaches are to be reconciled I cannot venture to suggest.
The best summary, if I may say so, was the one which came from the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. She said there was a feeling--I take her phrase--that it would be unseemly to press on with local elections in early May. I think that that feeling was generally expressed in every corner of the House.
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