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Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, with Amendment No. 7, I will speak to Amendments Nos. 8 and 9. Amendment No. 7 would leave out Clause 104(1)(a), which refers to local elections. Amendments Nos. 8 and 9 would leave out subsection (1)(b) and subsection (2)(b), which refer to elections to the Greater London Assembly and parish councils respectively.
The amendments return us to a debate that we had in Committee on the Government's stated intention to change the date of the local government elections in 2004 from their statutory position in early May. The rationale is that the local elections should coincide with the European elections in June. Consultation took place some time ago and the Government have made it clear since that they intend to implement the change. Legislative recognition of that is now being sought.
There are a number of reasons why the Government should not be allowed to change the date of elections, particularly those that are set in law to a precise timescale. The only election that is not set to a precise timescale is, of course, the general election; all others are set to a timescale and framework in law. The Government are proposing unaccountably to bring together the dates of the European election, the mayoral election in London, the election for the Greater London Assembly and any other local government elections that are due to take place in May 2004. Those elections are all to be lumped together and held on a date in June 2004.
I understand that the Government believe that that would be a one-offpresumably for the moment. However, if it can be done once, it can certainly be done again. In our view, an extremely undesirable precedent would be set. It is undesirable for a number of reasons, not only constitutional and practical, but relating to principle and motive. As I said, constitutionally, dates of elections are set in law by Parliament; they should not be moved lightly. Indeed, they should not be moved unless there is a major emergency. Your Lordships will remember the foot and mouth catastrophe, when it was agreed on a cross-party basis that it was inconceivable that the elections should be held when a great number of people who would be voting were unable to leave their houses because of the restrictions that were in force at that time. But that is not the case here. The only reason seems to be that voters may not want to turn out twice in a short periodfive weeks, in fact. But they have done so in the past and I have no doubt that they could manage to do so again.
If voter turnout is a concernand indeed it is to all of usthat will not necessarily be resolved by having a whole lot of elections put together that are all done on a different basis. This is not even about elections all
However, the overriding concern is that any government should feel able to change elections when they think that they have a rational reason to do so. If we do not stop this now, we feel that the Government will return to it in future on the basis of low turnout or it being more convenient, saying, "Oh, let us not worry about returning officers having to deal with several forms of election at the same time; that just looks convenient". That may be convenient for some peopleand some votersbut I suspect that most voters would rather stick to the principles enshrined in law and would perfectly willingly turn out in the usual way for two elections. There should be no suggestion that those elections should be brought together. I beg to move.
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, it is perhaps proper that I declare my interest. I will be a member of my party's list for the London-wide vote in the London Assembly election, so I have a quite substantial interest; if I am not elected, I will have drawn another month's salary by virtue of the provision, if enacted. The noble Baroness said that voters have done it in the past, but the problem is that they have not necessarily done so in great numbers.
For me, the overriding issue in what is a difficult situationI do not minimise the noble Baroness' point about different electoral systems, and so onis what is convenient for voters. Although I thoroughly enjoy elections, it is pretty obvious that voters do not like being asked to keep on turning out. I am not sure that the balance is overwhelming. The overriding consideration is voters' convenience, but it is a difficult judgment. That is the long and short of it.
The noble Baroness talks about principles being forfeited. I find it difficult to see what principle is forfeited. Of course I agree that governments should not be allowed on a whim to move election dates around. I should likethis is our clear party policyfixed dates for general elections. This will not be on a whim but to co-ordinate elections that would otherwise come inconveniently close to one another.
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