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Clause 4

Volume 929: debated on Wednesday 6 April 1977

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Short Title, Commencement And Extent

Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 2, line 21, leave out from "operation" to end of line 23 and insert

"on such day as the Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument appoint."

10.11 p.m.

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

This Government amendment replaces the provision in Clause 4 for the Act to come into operation three months after the date on which it is passed by one which enables my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to fix the date of operation by order.

The purpose of the three months interval was to allow the new returning officers and their supporting local authority staffs sufficient time in which to plan for the change over of responsibilities. It is most unlikely that it will be necessary to fix an earlier operative date, but a situation could arise—for example, in the event of a by-election—where it would obviously be desirable to invoke the order-making power. The new arrangements for which the Bill provides have been under consideration for a considerable time, and it is only reasonable and fair for all the interests affected to be made fully aware where the statutory responsibilities would lie if a by-election were to arise.

It is right that the sheriffs as well as the local authority staffs should not be left in doubt about the future situation. While, as I have said, the new provision seems unlikely to be invoked in advance of the three months period originally provided for, it offers a degree of flexibility which would remove any possible uncertainty and thereby ensures that adequate machinery would be available in the eventuality of a by-election occurring unexpectedly at a fairly early date. In that sense, the amendment reflects the assurance given in another place that, in the short term, adequate electoral machinery would be forthcoming.

This is another great U-turn by the Government, because only in March they were happy to stick to their three months. However, under great pressure of the likelihood of an election, a fortnight ago they had to change the wording of the Bill so that they could provide some service for counting the votes and setting up the procedures for an election if you-know-who had not ratted on us and voted with the Government. That had a dramatic effect and brought about this amendment.

We are still in a situation where an election could take place at any time. It is right that the Bill should come into force as soon as possible to relieve the sheriffs' clerks and their staff who will carry out the work and for the new set-up to be in full sway should an election be called forthwith.

I am glad to support the amendment.

Question put and agreed to.