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Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, bearing in mind that there is an equality issue here in that unequal treatment for cancers as between men and women has been suggested, what plans do the Government have for greater information to be given to men through all the various media on symptoms and when one needs to self-refer, as such information was given years ago, and continues to be given, to women?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, the whole purpose of the informed choice programme is to make

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that kind of information available to men who approach their GP, ask about prostate cancer and ask for a PSA test. The more information we provide, the more likely an individual is to make an informed choice.

Business

Lord Carter: My Lords, at a convenient moment after 3.30 pm my noble friend Lady Hayman will, with the leave of the House, repeat a Statement that is being made in another place on foot and mouth. It is likely that the Statement will be taken after the first group of amendments to the Elections Bill.

Elections Bill

3.22 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.--(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[THE DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Lord Ampthill) in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Postponement of local government elections in England and Wales]:

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 1:


    Page 1, line 3, at beginning insert "Subject to subsection (2A),"

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 1, I wish to speak also to Amendments Nos. 5 and 7. As we all know, the date of the county council elections has been--or will be, if the Bill is accepted--moved from 3rd May to 7th June. Why was 7th June accepted as an appropriate date? Presumably it was hoped that foot and mouth disease, which is the unhappy reason for the introduction of the Bill, would be under control by that stage. In the middle of last week some epidemiologists sent some optimistic messages with regard to how soon foot and mouth would be brought under control. However, it is fair to say that since the end of last week and over the weekend there have been other extremely serious outbreaks in areas far from previous outbreaks. Therefore, it is abundantly clear that this grievous disease is not under control and cannot be said to be so.

As I understand it, the purpose of the postponement is to enable people in affected areas of the countryside to take part in the democratic process through postal voting; to enable them to be canvassed where possible and to enable those who hope to stand as candidates to do so, particularly farmer candidates whose farms have been affected by foot and mouth disease.

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It becomes increasingly unlikely that the disease will be on the wane by 7th June. It therefore seems sensible--the amendments are designed to achieve this--to give the Government the opportunity to introduce an order to stagger the local elections if it is clear to any local authority that it is impossible for a fair and democratic process to take place in its locality. Amendment No. 7 gives details of how that process can be initiated and explains that such an order would be submitted to both Houses of Parliament for their approval. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee: On Second Reading last week we on these Benches made clear our view of the seriousness of any postponement of the local elections. My noble friend Lord Greaves expressed our collective view well when he said that we gave two cheers rather than three to the Bill.

The arguments were finely balanced, but certainly did not persuade us that the postponement should be for a period as long as one year. I acknowledge that the unwritten intention of the amendment may be to call the Government's bluff with regard to the range of elections that may take place on 7th June. As we said last week, we do not expect the Government Benches to acknowledge that this is a fig leaf for not having the general election on 3rd May. Perhaps I can tease the Conservatives a little by suggesting that the amendment is a fig leaf for them wanting to keep their heads in the sand and not face a general election for as long as they possibly can.

Seriously, we need certainty in this situation. Last week we argued for fixed-term Parliaments on that basis. There was certainty for those elected to the counties in May 1997. On Thursday I and my noble friends described a number of the difficulties that would arise from an indefinite postponement, which I described as a dribbling away of democracy. Among those would be a series of resignations by individual councillors which might in some cases lead to changes of control almost by default and not by design of the electorate, which is where on the whole such decisions should emanate. We also mentioned the knock-on effects of postponing annual meetings which would arise if the amendment were accepted. We shall discuss that issue later. I refer to decisions on service delivery which are taken at the beginning of a new council.

I also believe that there are inherent difficulties in the detail of the amendments which I shall mention now as we are expected to deal with all stages of the Bill today. Amendment No. 7 refers to the disease being brought "under control". Do we have appropriate or sufficient tests to determine that? The amendment further states,


    "restrictions have been lifted from most farms"

--does that mean 51 per cent of farms?--and refers to the trend being "downward" and the spread of the disease being "reversed". I am not sure that I understand the distinction between those two conditions. The amendment also refers to the time between reporting the disease and slaughter of the affected animals. That may be intended to

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demonstrate control in dealing with the disease, but does it reflect the control of the disease itself as distinct from having better mechanisms to respond to it?

Finally, whose judgment would apply? The Secretary of State would have to be satisfied, but then the matter would come to both Houses of Parliament. Under the amendment, an application for judicial review would be fairly likely and the courts would have to determine whether the tests were met.

There is so much scope for uncertainty in the amendment that we cannot support it. We certainly could not support an indefinite postponement of the council elections.

3.30 p.m.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: I, too, oppose the amendments. If I needed anything to reaffirm my opposition to them, a headline in yesterday's Sunday Telegraph did so. It read, "'We need gas masks', say Americans". Such horror stories would continue ad infinitum if the amendment was carried, with disastrous effects on our tourism industry.

The Prime Minister had to make a judgment, balancing the maintenance of the greatest possible normality, particularly for the tourism industry, with the establishment of certainty for local authorities. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has referred to some of the reasons for that and I am sure that other noble Lords more equipped than I will discuss the problems and complexities that a long delay would create for local authorities.

Business and the City also need certainty to maintain stability and to plan ahead. The amendment would send a strong negative signal to business and the City.

There are other reasons for opposing the amendment. It cannot possibly be right or democratic for the executive to have the power to call local elections when it suits them politically. That would be one consequence of the amendments. Unlike parliamentary elections, the date for local elections has always been laid down. It has been amended once or twice, but it has always been laid down in statute. I believe that the same should apply to parliamentary elections. I was sorry that I was not able to be here for Second Reading, but I have read the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, who referred to the Labour Party's policy in 1992. It is, perhaps, unfortunate that I retired in 1993 and the policy then somehow got lost. I firmly believe in having fixed-term Parliaments, just as we have fixed dates for local elections.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, the longer the delay, the more resignations and deaths there would be, which, without by-elections, could mean an undemocratic change of power by default. That would not be acceptable to whichever party lost out. That problem could be overcome only by holding by-elections in particular areas, which would not be acceptable.

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That brings me to one issue to which the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, did not refer when she introduced the amendment. I assume that the reference in Amendment No. 7 to,


    "a particular local authority area",

means that there could be elections in different areas at different times. That would be ludicrous. Arbitrary decisions would be made on which local authorities would hold elections. Who would take those decision? It would be up to the Home Secretary, on the advice of experts relating to small and specific areas of the country. That would be almost impossible to achieve.

I assume that the order would be binding on the local authorities concerned in respect of date and procedure. Would those local authorities be consulted? Would there be discussions between the experts and the local authorities about what should happen? In some cases currently, the experts are saying that certain areas or footpaths should be open, but the local authorities have arbitrarily decided not to open them, without giving any explanation of their reasons for ignoring the scientific advice. There is a lot of confusion about that.

It would also be confusing to tell a tourist from abroad that it was all right to go to Oxfordshire, but not to Bedfordshire, but maybe next month they could go to Dorset. That is nonsense.

Finally, the amendments take no account of the public mood. That mood is shown not just by the opinion polls, which are no more than guides, but by the voices of the people who are closely involved. Various statements have been made in the past few days. Ben Gill, President of the National Farmers Union, has said:


    "Farmers will find 7th June more acceptable".

The Conservative leader of Hampshire County Council said that he was "rather glad" at the decision. The chief of tourism in the South West, Malcolm Bell, welcomed the postponement until June and said that,


    "the open-ended postponement advocated by the Tories would be absolutely disastrous for the British Tourist Industry".

Carole Hutchings of South Devon Tourist Association, who is a farmer and an owner of a tourist attraction--the two cannot necessarily be separated--said that she was glad of the deferment, but did not want it to go beyond that date.

Even the Opposition are not as united on the issue as they seem. On Second Reading in the other place, Nicholas Winterton said that leaving the date open would be, "unconstitutional and most unsatisfactory", adding that,


    "the House has a duty and a responsibility to specify another date when they are to be held".--[Official Report, Commons, 4/4/01; col. 417.]

No stronger case than that can be put.


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