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London Government

Volume 344: debated on Tuesday 15 February 2000

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

10.28 pm

I beg to move,

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Greater London Authority Elections Rules 2000 (S.1. 2000, No. 208), dated 1st February 2000, a copy of which was laid before this House on 8th February, be annulled.
We are dealing with two consecutive orders. The first is detailed above; the second is the Greater London Authority (Election Expenses) Order 2000. They are related in the matter that we want to pursue: our fundamental objection that neither order provides for free mailings for candidates in the forthcoming London elections. We object to both orders, in order to apply as much pressure as possible on the Government to change their mind. I shall raise specific concerns about expenses during the debate on the second order.

We are joined in our objections by every party except the Labour party. The House will have noted that the motion is in the name of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and that of the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy), the leader of the Liberal Democrats; it is a prayer in joint names.

We are genuinely mystified as to why the Government have got themselves into this situation, finding themselves defending a lonely position in glorious isolation—a position that is in fact indefensible. Tonight's is something of a phoney war, because the real battle will be fought in the other place next week, when these orders come before their Lordships; and the Government, if they maintain their present position, will lose both orders in the upper House. If that happens, it will be the first time the upper House has defeated secondary legislation since 1968, when the issue of Rhodesian sanctions was being debated more than 30 years ago.

The Government cannot possibly sustain their present position. No doubt we shall be accused of wrecking—I hear the echo from the Labour Bench already—but there is plenty of time to put these matters right on the basis of compromise. We shall be accused of being irresponsible, but we are in fact taking a constructive approach. Last night in the other place, the official Opposition tabled a constructive amendment to the Representation of the People Bill, providing for mandatory free mailings in London elections.

The Government should already be aware of the weakness of their case and the strength of the arguments against it. I hope that the Minister who replies to tonight's debate will not simply read out the rather weak speech delivered by Lord Bassam of Brighton.

No doubt we shall be told that the upper House has no legitimacy to sustain the argument that we are pursuing tonight, but the upper House is doing no more than pursuing what has become known as the Jay doctrine—the doctrine enunciated by Baroness Jay of Paddington, who explained that the upper House is more legitimate as a result of the recent reforms,
"because its members have earned their places, and"
it is
"therefore more effective in playing its part in our bicameral constitution."
Those are her words, not ours, and that is why the upper House feels able to exercise its authority in that way.

Let us first place on record the importance of the mayoral and Greater London Authority elections. These are exceptional elections. There will be 5.1 million voters voting in the election for the mayor of London. There are 350,000 electors per super-constituency, and the only way the candidates can get information to their voters in this extraordinary and unique city is by way of the free mailing. If there is not a free mailing, millions of ordinary voters will have absolutely no direct contact with their constituency candidates.

Our position, as set out in the amendment to the Representation of the People Bill tabled in the other place last night, is that there should be one free mailing for each mayoral candidate and one free mailing for each of the candidates in the super-constituencies. We propose that the mailing of the mayoral candidate and the mailing of a super-constituency candidate should be able to endorse one set of list candidates. We need to amend the spending limits in the second order to reflect the availability of the free mailing.

At the time of the passage of the Bill that became the Greater London Authority Act 1999, there was every expectation that free mailings would be available. At no point was it ever suggested that the precedent set by Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would not be followed.

Since the Royal Assent to the 1999 Act on 11 November there has been ample time for the Government to conduct a proper and open consultation, but they delayed more than a month before writing to the other parties to suggest what their proposals might be. It was on 15 December that the Under"Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), wrote to us in solemn tones about the GLA's unique position in the electoral processes of this nation, and told us that the election would be treated in the same way as any other local authority election as far as free mailings were concerned.

Every political party except the Labour party responded in the strongest terms to that consultation. The letter from the Conservative party said:
"Like every other political party involved in the London elections, we have strong objections to many of your proposals. Each of the innovations that Labour is proposing seems purpose made to disadvantage the smaller and less well financed and organised parties."
The absence of free mailing is at the top of that list.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is another strong reason why our case should be followed? We are putting through the House—it was in another place yesterday—the Representation of the People Bill, which is designed to increase voter turnout and to engage more people in elections. That is the Government's declared objective. Yet every piece of evidence suggests that, if we do not allow the electorate to receive literature through a free mailing, voting numbers will go down and the first London election will have a lower turnout. The credibility of campaigns will be under threat both this year and thereafter.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is extraordinary that the Minister got up to the strangest antics in Trafalgar square—he let off balloons and tried to dance a rap for the benefit of the cameras—but will not pursue the most obvious course to increase the turnout in these important elections by allowing voters to receive information directly from the candidates.

We have an extraordinary and unprecedented situation. It is customary for election arrangements to be dealt with as a matter of consensus, but we have finished up with the governing party imposing its will without regard to the views of any other party and in an unfair, undemocratic and dictatorial fashion.

Some Labour Members find it regrettable that it should be left to Her Majesty's Opposition to defend democratic processes. None the less, does the hon. Gentleman not agree that many inner London constituencies, in particular, have endemic problems with low turnouts, and that anything that is calculated to make that turnout even lower is not in the best interests of a successful launch for the new Greater London Authority?

I totally concur with the hon. Lady. That is why it is all the more mystifying that the party that says that it is desperately worried about low turnouts should shoot itself in the foot and discredit one of its own prized constitutional reforms. The Government's actions seem tailor-made to reducing turnout and interest in the election. The process that they have chosen seems designed to create the very apathy that they say they are against.

The orders are particularly unfair to the smaller parties. Higher spending limits with no free mailing—that implies that one has to raise one's own funding for mailshotscan suit only the largest and best financed parties. We know that money is little object for one particular party, but the provision is extremely unfair on smaller and less well funded parties.

Three principle arguments were advanced by Lord Bassam of Brighton last night. First, he said that it will simply be a local election and that the precedent is set by elections to the Greater London council. In fact, that is not the precedent. The GLA will have a completely different electoral system and constituencies are very much larger. However, the key point relates to the mayoral election. There will be 5.1 million voters in a single constituency and they will take part in a single election.

It would be unprecedented if there were no free mailing to enable the mayoral candidates to communicate with those 5.1 million voters. That electorate is substantially larger than the Scottish, Welsh or Northern Ireland electorates. What phoney distinction are the Government trying to make to justify the fact that those electorates are entitled to free mailings while London is not?

If these are local elections, why do the candidates have to make large deposits? We have deposits in parliamentary elections, European elections and elections for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly because those elections are important, so they also have free mailings. The Government cannot have it both ways and demand deposits from candidates without providing free mailings.

The second argument concerns cost. I am afraid that if there is to be a Greater London Authority and a mayor, a certain amount of expense will be involved in making sure that the elections to the mayoralty and the Assembly are free and fair, and if the Government were not prepared to meet those costs, they should have thought of that before starting the process of reform.

I hope that the Minister will not come up with the ludicrous, scaremongering, Treasury-type costings of between £30 million and £35 million for those free mailings. That is utterly absurd. The Government are living in cloud cuckoo land if they think that such figures are realistic. If free mailings would be such bad value for money for Londoners, why were they such good value in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? That is completely inconsistent.

The Government's third argument against free mailings is becoming known as the curry house argument, because they say that the free mailings would somehow be abused by people who run curry houses, so leaflets trying to sell curries would be circulated rather than election addresses. That, too, is totally ludicrous. First, as was pointed out in the debate in the other place last night, the Post Office has to vet leaflets for election free mailings, and if it is not satisfied that the information is bona fide, the leaflet falls at the first fence.

Secondly, if such abuse is so serious, why has there been no such abuse in parliamentary elections, European elections or Welsh, Scottish or Northern Ireland elections?

Because of the size of the electorate.

But the size of European constituencies is considerable, and the list mailings for the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland elections covered large electorates. The hon. Gentleman is living on a different planet. He is making it up because he is in a corner and does not know what else to say.

In any case, the curry house argument does not stand up because the curry house would have to print the leaflets, pay the deposit and pay for the envelopes, which would be a considerable outlay. A free mailing is not a free ride, as the hon. Gentleman seems to think, but it gives small parties a chance to communicate with electors who would not otherwise receive a thing. There are vast swathes of London where, to the shame of us all, there is precious little political activity and no large parties are able to canvass actively. The electorate consists of many single households, many people who are ex-directory and many people who are out at all hours and who would never have direct contact with the representatives of any of the candidates.

It is also an exaggeration to suggest that there might be a large number of mayoral candidates—it was mentioned in the upper House that there might be 20 candidates—all using the free post facility.

The purpose of this debate is to send the Government a strong, clear signal. As I said earlier, there is a joint prayer from the two main opposition parties in the House against the Government's position. All the other, smaller parties support our action. Ours is not a wrecking manoeuvre; we have set out constructive proposals in the other place. Tonight's debate is a dress rehearsal for what will happen in the upper House if the Government do not see sense. The Government will lose the vote in the upper House, not because of the Conservatives, but because they will be opposed by peers of all parties represented there. Some of their colleagues in the upper House and in House of Commons are extremely unhappy with the Government's decision.

To threaten the electoral process is not the right way forward. All we ask is for dialogue, compromise, consensus and reason—all of which are sadly lacking at present. We could ascribe to the Government all sorts of motives for their behaviour, but that is not our purpose in pursuing the matter tonight. We want a reasonable solution. We want the orders ultimately to obtain consent, so that the elections can proceed in an orderly manner. It is in the Government's gift to ensure that that happens.

10.46 pm

The hour is late, but as a London Member of Parliament I would be remiss in my responsibilities to my constituents if I did not put the interests of London electors on the record this evening. For nearly 20 years, I have been, first, a local government councillor and now a Member of Parliament for an inner London constituency. I know only too well the problems with election turnout in inner cities—the problems with getting people out to vote and making them aware of the real issues on which elections are fought.

We have created a brand new political structure; we face the first ever election for a mayor for London. It is astonishing to some of us that the Government seriously propose not to have a free post in the election. It might technically be just another local authority election, but Ministers know full well that it is not the same. The number of people involved and the significance of the mayoralty mean that it is more than a local authority election. Ministers cannot get away with that argument.

If the House of Lords knocks the issue back to the Commons, Ministers should not argue that it is just another example of the peers versus the people. In fact, it will be the Government versus the people. It cannot be in the interests of my constituents or of the other electors of London that candidates should have no access to free mailing. Many of my constituents do not read a daily newspaper or watch "Newsnight" and other-political programmes. They expect to receive their mailshot from the political parties—indeed, they look forward to it, because it enables them to learn about the issues.

The proposal is ill thought out and the justifications that Ministers have offered do not stand up to examination. The idea that the mailshot can be used to publicise hairdressers and restaurants is utterly absurd. For the sake of short-term advantage, Ministers appear willing to play fast and loose with my constituents' access to information. I shall support the Government in the Lobby tonight, but I was anxious to put my remarks on the record. Members of the other place should be in no doubt that, even at this late stage, many London Members of Parliament and thousands of London electors are looking to the Government to change their mind.

Will the hon. Lady tell me what short-term advantage she thinks Ministers will gain from the proposal?

The question of currying favour with the Treasury is always alive in the eyes of Ministers. However, let me put a wholly speculative proposition to the House: let us imagine that there was an independent candidate who had led in the polls for the past two years; and let us imagine that the Government were frightened that that independent would attempt to run, albeit without the benefit of the funds available to major parties. It would be extremely convenient for the Government if that independent candidate were deprived of a free post and had to raise the money from his own sources—but that is a wholly speculative suggestion and I shall not detain the House by exploring it.

We are considering an important issue: the London electorate's right to gain access to information about the mayoralty. To put it as politely as I can, every single aspect of the mayoral campaign, from the original decision to go for a directly elected mayor onwards, has not been managed as well as it might have been and has tended to discredit the Government. It is with great regret that I say that to the House tonight.

10.51 pm

The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) put her finger on it when she exposed the Government's motivation for their treatment of the issue of free mailing. I hope that the hon. Lady will not support the Government in the Lobby, and that she will at least abstain to send a signal to some of her colleagues on the Labour Benches in another place. Many of them share her anxieties.

The Government's problem stems from their approach to the mayor and the Greater London Authority. From the beginning, they have been confused about whether the new form of government was regional, city or local government. The Government claim tonight that it is local government and that therefore there is no need for free mailing. However, that has not always been the Government's position. On Second Reading of the Greater London Authority Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) asked the Deputy Prime Minister:
"Will the proposal in the Bill be the first of England's regional governments or merely another form of local government?"
The Deputy Prime Minister gave a clear reply in his characteristic style:
"The proposed authority is not similar to any local government authority as we know it. It will be a new type of city government, with a city executive and an elected mayor … Therefore, it is fair to say that it is not the normal local government structure."—[[Official Report,] 14 December 1998; Vol. 322, c. 624.]
The Deputy Prime Minister said that the proposed authority was not a form of local government.

If the Government believe that, they should establish a new system of rules for electing city governments. As was said yesterday in another place, anxiety exists that, if other cities get mayors and hold elections, the expense may grow. Surely the way round that is to produce a new set of election rules and a new, specially designed process for city government. The Government should not try to create a hybrid form. That has got them into their mess.

The Minister's comments in Committee on amendments that paved the way for the statutory instrument show that the Government are in a mess. He said:
"The amendments modify the usual local election provisions when that is necessary as a result of the proposed new electoral system."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 28 January 1999; c. 76.]
In Committee, the Minister admitted that the GLA was not like local government and that the election rules had to be amended.

Scotland has a Parliament and Wales and Northern Ireland have Assemblies. Are not the London elections akin to national or regional elections, not local government elections, and should not London be treated with the same respect?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The Government have been schizophrenic about whether the authority constitutes local or regional government. Consequently, they have not been able to deal with the matter consistently. That is principally why we are here tonight, although there are other reasons, to which the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington referred.

As the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) said, the difference between the GLA and local elections lies in the rules, which are set out in the statutory instrument. There are significant differences between the rules for the GLA and local elections in terms of personal expense limits and deposits. If GLA elections are so similar to local elections, why do we need the order and 100 pages of new rules? The Government's argument stands no test, as the size of the electorate shows: is the Minister suggesting that one of more than 5 million is similar to that of an ordinary council ward? That is patent nonsense.

We must return to why the free post was introduced by the Labour party by Act of Parliament in 1948. It rightly saw the need for equality in the way in which people and parties fought elections to ensure that candidates had a fair crack of the whip. In Committee, the Minister for Housing and Planning said:
"Our objective will be to set expenses limits that are realistic and allow candidates to campaign properly and without incurring technical problems. At the same time, we do not want to give unfair advantage to those with large financial resources."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 28 January 1999; c. 80.]
If that was his intention, why is he not proposing a free post tonight? That is clearly the way to ensure equality between candidates, and he is hoist by his own petard.

As the hon. Member for North Essex said, the free post is needed more than ever in London so that candidates can communicate with their electorate, because many people live in blocks of flats and residential developments with entry phones and locked gates. They are difficult to enter. Liberal Democrat Members are often teased for delivering the "Focus" newsletter around their constituencies, but I can vouch for the fact that it is difficult for anyone who is not a Post Office official to gain access to many houses in my constituency. It is important that the candidates have that chance and surely that need is even greater in this election.

The electorate are likely to be relatively confused about what is going on as the GLA is wholly new and not at all like the Greater London council, as Ministers have argued many times, and there will be three new electoral systems. If the voters need information about any election, surely it is this one, and that information would enable them to understand what on earth is going on. However, the Minister is not prepared to allow them to have it and that is an absolute and utter disgrace.

Spurious arguments were made in the other place last night in defence of the Government's position, but the hon. Member for North Essex demolished them and I do not intend to cover the same ground. However, it was said that the issue of free mailing was not raised in Committee. That is factually incorrect. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) questioned the Minister for Housing and Planning:
"Does he not envisage at least one free mailing, as is allowed in normal parliamentary elections?"
The Minister replied:
"The right hon. Gentleman raised the different issue of whether a free mailshot should apply, as in parliamentary elections, or whether it should not, as in local government elections. Perhaps he has raised one more issue."—[Off cial Report, Standing Committee A, 28 January 1999; c. 79.]
What sort of response is that? It shows that he was aware of the issue as he answered the question, but he was clearly hiding and not coming forward.

As one reads the Committee Hansard with the benefit of hindsight, it becomes increasingly evident that Ministers always intended not to provide a free post, but did not have the guts to tell us. I questioned the Minister on that very issue:
"As concern has been expressed that private companies will nominate candidates for the mayoral position, and use the free post for free advertising. On 26 October 1998, The Guardian reported that Ministers were concerned about such abuse of the free post and the electoral process … The report was written by David Hencke."
His article said that Ministers sent a memorandum to the Neill committee about that. I went on:
"It is not good enough for Ministers not to take this opportunity to clarify their thoughts and give us all an indication of when and how they will deal with the specific difficulty that arises from this unique election process."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 28 January 1999; c. 91.]
In other words, the issue was fully raised and Ministers had the chance to explain their position, and they did not. Again, the arguments put forward in the debate last night in the other place are shown to be inadequate.

Having also watched and listened to the debate in the other place, I should like to add that there is one other argument. The Minister in the other place speculated that it might cost about £30 million. Do Ministers not realise that already polling cards are delivered, and will be delivered, and that one could perfectly reasonably combine the polling card delivery with the free post delivery, and perfectly reasonably combine the information from all the candidates in one or two mailings? Ministers are inventing figures to undermine an argument that everybody else accepts.

My hon. Friend is exactly right. Ministers and other Labour Members may shake their heads and say that it is a ludicrous suggestion, but they should talk to the Electoral Reform Society, which says that this is done in other countries. Indeed, it is done on the continent and in the United States of America for elections for mayors of cities. If exactly that process can be applied elsewhere, are Ministers saying that they run such an incompetent administration that they are not able to do it? That would be the logic if they said that they could not. On the issue of whether the free post is too expensive, the Government really have no grounds for their position.

Finally, I should like to address what happens if the statutory instrument falls. It may not fall tonight, but we are fairly sure that it will fall when it comes before the other place. Who will be to blame for the elections for the Greater London Authority not going ahead? The Government and their spin doctors will, of course, try to blame the Opposition parties, but the people of London will not believe them. The people of London see a Government with a majority of 179, a Government who put forward this new authority in their manifesto, who went to a referendum on it. They are expecting the Government to deliver the election, and they are very well aware that the Government have a few internal problems over the issue. They will suspect, quite rightly, that the Government backed down because there were such internal problems and divisions in their own party.

The idea that the Government will be able to blame the Opposition parties just will not wash. The reality is that the Opposition parties, throughout the process of setting up this new authority, have been very constructive. There has been an attempt to achieve consensus about the form of the new authority and over the electoral system. Indeed, the Government have been active in trying to achieve that consensus in many of their constitutional reforms, through setting up commissions, having cross-party working parties and so on. When it comes to the grubby issue of whether they are prepared to put their money where their mouth is and allow people to contest the election on a fair basis, they do not seek consensus; they just go with what suits the Labour party. That is a democratic outrage, and we shall be supporting the Conservative party tonight in the Lobby.

11.4 pm

To preface what I shall say, I have campaigned in every general election and every local election in London Ace the abolition of the GLC in 1986, and the central plank of our campaign in all of them has been a policy programme based upon the restoration of democratic strategic government in the capital city.

Like my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who described himself as a foot soldier in the party during that period, I have knocked on doors, delivered leaflets, spoken from soapboxes and run street stalls. All the way through, we have been arguing that what distinguishes us from the Conservative party is our commitment to democracy. Therefore, I am somewhat saddened by what has happened tonight and recently, because some incompetent bungle or tactical manoeuvre has now presented us with a situation in which the Tory party, which abolished democratic strategic government in this capital, can present itself as the defender of a democratic process by which candidates can communicate with the electorate. There is an irony there somewhere, that the party has moved on so much.

Let me say this to my own side. We can play games with party rules; we can manipulate selections—I suppose that that is all part of the political process—but I think that we interfere with the democratic process at all our perils. It is one thing to sort out selections; it is another to undermine a basic freedom that we established as a party in 1948.

It is worth remembering the arguments that our Government—a Labour Government—advanced in 1948 for the establishment of a free post. First, they argued that elections should be based on an informed choice by electors. The free post would allow candidates to set out directly to electors the policies on which they wanted to determine their votes. They also argued strongly that it would overcome the problem of any one party's having a monopoly of resources, either financial or in terms of ownership of the media. They reserved it to large-scale elections; they left it to local volunteers at local elections to be able to contact each House.

I feel that the arguments in defence of the Government's position have opened us up almost to ridicule, certainly in the other place and now, I think, among the public. We have discussed some of those arguments, but the one about scale is overwhelming. We have a 5.1 million electorate for the mayor here; in Scotland there was a 4 million electorate, in Wales one of 2.2 million and in Northern Ireland one of one of 1.2 million, and they all had free posts. This is not like some by-election in Ambridge; this is a major election.

There is another argument about the status of the capital. This election will have implications for every Londoner but, because this is the capital, it will also have implications for the whole country. We are the gateway to the country; we are a major resource of the country; we are the ambassador for the rest of the country throughout the world.

We have heard an argument about cost. A mail-out to each household would cost £420,000. Even the figures presented by a Minister in the other place do not "stack up", but I do not think that there is a cost to democracy. If we carry the argument to its logical conclusion, why have five-yearly elections? Why not have them once every 10 years? That would be cheaper. Why not have a Prime Minister for life? That would be much cheaper altogether.

If we want to be more creative, let us look at some of the proposals presented by the electoral registration officers. They suggest a ballot standardising election addresses, and one delivery for all that are used elsewhere. The arguments about abuse of the system have been dealt with adequately, in the other House and here. The material is already vetted by the Post Office. There are already powers for intervention to prevent abuse of candidatures. It is noticeable that we argue that this is a local government election, and at the same time introduce a deposit as though it were a national election. We cannot have it both ways.

The weakest argument that I have heard so far is that a direct free post is not needed because the media will cover the election so intensely that candidates will have no problem in putting their policies across. Such faith in the fairness, balance and competence of the British media is touching. The gentle objectivity of The Sun, and the philosophical jesuitical balance of the debate in the Murdoch media empire, will of course be accepted by all candidates.

Is the hon. Gentleman's experience the same as mine? Does he think that, in many cases, the addressed free post will be the only delivery that multi-occupancy houses will receive during the election campaign? That very group of people are probably least likely to vote in an election.

I rarely have the same life experiences as a Liberal Democrat, but in that respect I do.

It is largely because of the bias, prejudice and, at times, bigotry of the media that the free post was introduced to give a candidate at least one opportunity to communicate directly, in an untrammelled way, with the electorate.

The arguments against the free post for the elections have been demonstrated in both Houses to be specious. The debate goes beyond the normal knockabout of party politics. A healthy democracy is founded on a ferocious and combative debate on policy issues, and on principles; but there must be a general consensus about the procedures on which that debate is based. That is why election orders such as this are usually agreed on a consensual basis.

That manipulation undermines that consensual approach, but, more important for me and for many of my colleagues, I think, it sets a precedent. A more ruthless Government may pray it in aid for more serious curtailments of democratic processes. By denying candidates the free post, we edge towards the American system, whereby democratic participation for candidatures is available only to those who can afford it. In that way, politics and candidatures become almost a commodity. When we have a commodity, people can be bought.

It is a mistaken act. We need to think again about it and to come back with a compromise formula before it goes to the other place.

11.10 pm

Thank God for old Labour. It is striking that it is new Labour which is Leninist now. It is new Labour for which the end justifies the means. The end is the imposition on London of the Prime Minister's preferred candidate. It does not matter if democracy is sacrificed in the process.

As usual, the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) spoke with intellect on her side. The sad thing was that force majeure is against her. I am sure that her natural courage would have induced her to vote against the order, but the Labour party now deselects individuals who vote against the party line on a three-line whip. The hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) admitted as much in the early stages of the Greater London Authority Bill.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell), who is a political neighbour and whom I know well, is one of the foremost experts on local government in the House of Commons. He knows more about local government in London than me. I defer to him on many matters. When he speaks as eloquently as he does, I take note, but he, too, does not have the courage of his convictions. I do not think that he is prepared to take on the Labour leadership and to say that it should not foist what is an ill-begotten idea on London—that London is so unimportant that it does not merit a free post.

As Londoners, we know that it is we who have subsidised the free post for the Assembly election in Northern Ireland, the Assembly election in Wales and the parliamentary election in Scotland, yet, although we have the biggest electorate, we are led to suppose that we are not important enough to merit a free post, even though we have perhaps the most complicated system of them all.

In my constituency in outer London, the areas to be covered are huge. Harefield ward in rural Middlesex is as big as the whole of the Islington borough. This is just one ward. To ensure that every elector is informed about the programme of the candidates, it is our democratic duty to ensure that each and every elector receives an election address.

The electors have to be informed not only about the respective programme of the candidates, but about the system. With the mayoralty, there is the question of the double vote—how the second vote should be exercised. The mayoral candidate might want to give advice on that.

Has my hon. Friend noticed how the Government are not shy about putting out their own information? I have no doubt that London voters will be deluged by publicity at public expense to educate the masses about the great new assembly and mayoralty that is being created, but the Government do not want voters to receive information from other parties. There is something deeply unsavoury about that whole aspect.

It is not only unsavoury, but dishonest. The Government insisted all through the passage of the Greater London Authority Act 1999 that one of the merits of proportional representation would be to ensure the inclusion of representatives of smaller parties. Smaller parties are important for London, as they represent perhaps different communities and ideologies. If the assembly is to be a working democracy, it is crucial that they should have a chance. Clearly, they will not have a genuine chance if there is no free post.

The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington, with her candour and her charm, let the cat out o the bag. She did not name the feline specimen to whom she was referring, but it is a specimen red in tooth and claw, the hon. Member for Brent, East whom at all costs—but at zero cost to the electors—the governing party wishes to keep from office.

Nevertheless, I suspect that—having fraudulently put a double question in the referendum, then having tried to rig the ballot for the Labour candidacy, and now having sought to do away with the traditional democratic process of a free mailshot to all electors—they will get their come-uppance, which I suspect will be that the Labour candidate will not win the mayoralty on 4 May. That will be wonderful news.

11.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions
(Mr. Keith Hill)

Rather unusually among the speakers in this debate, I intend to speak to the issue that we are debating. We are not debating the Greater London Authority (Election Expenses) Order 2000—on which it might be possible to hang a discussion of the issue of free mailshots—but the Greater London Authority Elections Rules 2000, which are about organisation of the election. If the rules were to be annulled, there would be no London elections at all.

Opposition Members say good. Perhaps the prayer is part of a deep-laid plot to stop the elections.

The Greater London Authority Act 1999, approved by the House at the end of the previous Session, provides for the establishment of a Greater London Authority consisting of mayor and a London assembly. Section 4 and schedule 2 to the Act specify the voting systems for electing the authority, and schedule 3 amends section 36 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, so that rules can be made for the new elections. We are debating those rules today.

Those rules make possible the election of the Greater London Authority—which is a manifesto commitment. I also remind the House that the Greater London Authority was the subject of a London-wide referendum in 1998, which resulted in a clear yes vote from the people of London. The Greater London Authority was also the subject of legislation that was passed by both Houses and that, in November 1999, gained Royal Assent. That legislation specified the date of the election—May 4—in section 3. There can be no doubt that Parliament was clear about the date of the election. Without the election rules, there can be no election.

We have heard today that the Opposition's intention is to annul the rules, if not in this place, then in another place. They are attempting to do so not because there is anything wrong with the rules—which have been consulted upon widely, and are widely precedented—but because of an entirely extraneous issue that is not relevant to the rules at all: the Opposition's desire to have free mailshots. That desire is nothing to do with this order at all, and the Opposition's action is virtually unprecedented in the history of Parliament. It is incredible.

My noble Friend Lord Bassam, the Home Office Minister, made it quite clear in the debate in another place on the Representation of the People Bill why there would be no free mailshots for GLA elections. The GLA elections are local elections, and those do not have mailshots. Moreover, the cost of mailshots would be not only astronomical, but uncontrollable. The fact is that 20 mayoral candidates alone could spend £15 million, and there would be a real risk of abuse by frivolous candidates.

The GLA is a small streamlined authority with a budget of £35 million, and expenditure of £15 million to £20 million on mailshots would be quite disproportionate.

I dare say that the hon. Gentleman would like to talk about the composite free mailing—an issue beloved of the Liberal Democrats, but not so enthusiastically endorsed by the Conservatives. However, the issue is not so straightforward. There are innumerable technical difficulties, possibly including statutory issues.

The electoral registration officers have made representations to the Home Office, saying that the task of producing a composite free mailing would undermine their independent role in the elections. The Liberal Democrats may not like that, but it is the truth. If the electoral registration officers do not organise the composite free mailing, who would be acceptable to the British National party and the Liberal Democrats, who would have to share and agree the delivery process? [Interruption.]

Order. I am hearing an awful lot of noise from below the Gangway.

The hon. Gentleman says yes, but I say no. There should not be any noise.

I am grateful for your support, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but they cannot shout me down.

The rules are not even about mailshots. They are about the details of the election. I shall explain some of those details in the hope that Opposition Members will understand that they are technical and uncontroversial.

No, I shall not. There were seven speakers in the 46 minutes of debate before I rose to speak. It is my responsibility to respond with an explanation of the Government's position and, importantly, of the contents of the order.

The people of London would not understand what the Opposition were up to if the election were jeopardised over such an issue. Election rules instruct returning officers on the practical details of setting up the election, running the poll and counting the votes. They do not deal with how much money candidates or parties may spend in advancing their cause. That is covered by the order that will be the subject of our next debate.

Members of Parliament are only too well acquainted with the parliamentary election rules, which govern their entry here. Many of us also have personal experience of the workings of the principal area rules that govern election to large local authorities. The rules before the House, for the new Greater London Authority, are based solidly on the local election rules with which we are all familiar. They vary only in ways made necessary by the different voting system or some other factor special to this election.

The rules are a sizeable document, running to over 100 pages, so I am sure that hon. Members will forgive me if I pause to explain their relatively simple structure. There will be three elected elements to the Greater London Authority: constituency members of the London Assembly; London members of the Assembly; and the mayor. Each is elected according to a different system. Not surprisingly, schedules 1, 2 and 3 of the rules are three freestanding sets of rules for enabling each of those elements of the authority to be elected. Schedule 4 modifies those three sets of rules when all three elections happen at the same time—once every four years when there is an ordinary election of the whole authority. Schedule 5 revises the wording of normal electoral forms for the new election and will not contain any surprises for those used to electoral law.

However, schedule 6 contains something different. For the first time in a British election, we have rules enabling the votes to be counted electronically instead of by a large staff of people. Schedules 7 and 8 modify the election rules when a GLA election is combined with a local authority election or with a parliamentary election. The latter combination would require amendments to the Representation of the People Regulations 1986, which will be effected by an order under section 405 of the Greater London Authority Act, and which I shall lay before the House shortly.

What do the Government intend to do when the other place votes these statutory instruments down?

It would be an act of the grossest irresponsibility for an unelected Chamber to seek to dictate electoral practice to the elected House and we would resist it.

The Minister is not addressing the debate we have had this evening. Will he now put away his brief? We know what is in the rules and they are of only tangential relevance to the question that is preoccupying the House—how can he possibly justify denying the usual democratic process of a free mailing for candidates in the greater London elections? He should address that point rather than just read out what has been typed up by civil servants.

There is no point in the hon. Gentleman trying to tack on to an order relating to the election rules the wider considerations of free mailshots. There is no power in the Greater London Authority Act 1999 to introduce such mailshots.

My hon. Friend has argued that he does not have to meet the detailed arguments that were put in the debate, under your supervision, Mr. Deputy Speaker, about the question of a free mailshot. He says that the rules say nothing about the free mailshot, but the Opposition will vote against them tonight because they say nothing about the free mailshot. Will my hon. Friend now answer the arguments that have been put tonight?

What I find astonishing about this whole process is that there were several clauses and schedules—which were dense, detailed and lengthy—in the GLA legislation that dealt with electoral procedures and rules, but the Opposition totally failed to raise the issue in any serious way during the protracted hours of debate on the matter.

I must continue, because it is my duty to report on the contents of the rules to the House.

No, it would be wrong for me to do so at this point. I have spoken about the innovatory content of the rules in the introduction of electronic counting. On May 4 this year, the votes in a British election will for the first time be counted not by people, but by electronic scanners. I think that that is something that the House will want to take note of and applaud.

The rules also set the scale of deposits and signatures that candidates for all three elections have to provide in support of their nomination. The rules propose that each mayoral candidate will be required to pay a deposit of £10,000 and to gather 330 signatures—10 from each London local authority—in support of their candidacy. Assembly candidates will not have to collect signatures, but those contesting constituencies will have to pay a deposit of £1,000, and parties and independent candidates wishing to contest London-wide seats will have to pay a £5,000 deposit.

The mayoral deposit will be forfeit if a candidate fails to obtain 5 per cent. of the vote. A candidate for a constituency seat in the Assembly would also have to gain 5 per cent. of the vote or forfeit their deposit, and a party or independent candidate contesting the London-wide seats would have to get 2.5 per cent. of the vote or forfeit their deposit.

The rules that are before us now have been crafted with care to ensure that the poll can be democratically conducted under proper conditions of fairness and secrecy and with a proper balance between the interests of voters and candidates. A number of matters have been touched on in the debate which, while of interest in themselves, are not actually part of the content of the rules. For instance, they do not, and could not, include a power to provide free mailshots, to prescribe candidates' expenses or to give directions about how any publicity is handled.

The rules are purely and simply about controlling the way in which the GLA election is run so that everyone involved knows clearly what may and may not be done and what the terms of the contest are. They follow the traditional pattern, and often the traditional wording, of our other sets of election rules. There are no surprises. Both the main Opposition parties represented in the House have been kept informed of the proposed content of the rules while they were in draft. The rules are the right ones for the GLA election. That election, which the House has earlier determined on, cannot proceed without the rules and I invite the House to approve them.

It being half-past Eleven o'clock, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Standing Order No. 17 (Delegated Legislation (negative procedure)).

The House divided: Ayes 102, Noes 296.

Division No. 76]

[11.29 pm

AYES

Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey)Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Allan, RichardBurnett, John
Ancram, Rt Hon MichaelBurns, Simon
Arbuthnot, Rt Hon JamesBurstow, Paul
Ballard, JackieCable, Dr Vincent
Beith, Rt Hon A JCash, William
Body, Sir RichardChidgey, David
Brady, GrahamChope, Christopher
Brake, TomCollins, Tim
Brand, Dr PeterCotter, Brian
Brazier, JulianCurry, Rt Hon David
Breed, ColinDavey, Edward (Kingston)
Brooke, Rt Hon PeterDavies, Quentin (Grantham)
Browning, Mrs AngelaFearn, Ronnie

Forth, Rt Hon EricMichie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)
Foster, Don (Bath)Morgan, Alasdair (Galloway)
Fox, Dr LiamMoss, Malcolm
Gale, RogerNorman, Archie
Garnier, EdwardOaten, Mark
George, Andrew (St Ives)O'Brien, Stephen (Eddisbury)
Gill, ChristopherÖpik, Lembit
Gray, JamesPaice, James
Hammond, PhilipPaterson, Owen
Hancock, MikePortillo, Rt Hon Michael
Harris, Dr EvanRandall, John
Hawkins, NickRendel, David
Heald, OliverRobertson, Laurence
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)Roe. Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Hogg, Rt Hon DouglasRussell, Bob (Colchester)
Horam, JohnSanders, Adrian
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)Sayeed, Jonathan
Hunter, AndrewShepherd, Richard
Jack, Rt Hon MichaelSoames, Nicholas
Jenkin, BernardSpring, Richard
Kennedy, Rt Hon Charles (Ross Skye & Inverness W)Steen, Anthony
Stunell, Andrew
Key, RobertSwayne, Desmond
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)Syms, Robert
Kirkbride, Miss JulieThomas, Simon (Ceredigion)
Kirkwood, ArchyTonge, Dr Jenny
Townend, John
Lait, Mrs JacquiTredinnick, David
Lidington, DavidTyler, Paul
Livsey, RichardTyrie, Andrew
Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)Webb, Steve
Llwyd, ElfynWelsh, Andrew
Loughton, TimWiddecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
MacGregor, Rt Hon JohnWilkinson, John
McIntosh, Miss AnneWillis, Phil
MacKay, Rt Hon AndrewYoung, Rt Hon Sir George
Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert
McLoughlin, Patrick

Tellers for the Ayes:

Maples, John

Mr. Peter Atkinson and

May, Mrs Theresa

Sir Robert Smith.

NOES

Abbott, Ms DianeBurgon, Colin
Ainger, NickButler, Mrs Christine
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth)
Alexander, DouglasCampbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Allen, GrahamCampbell—Savours, Dale
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)Cann, Jamie
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale)Caplin, Ivor
Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms HilaryCasale, Roger
Atherton, Ms CandyCaton, Martin
Atkins, CharlotteCawsey, Ian
Austin, JohnChapman, Ben (Wirral S)
Banks, TonyClapham, Michael
Barnes, HarryClark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)
Barron, KevinClark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands)
Battle, John
Bayley, HughClark, Paul (Gillingham)
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C)Clarke, Charles (Norwich S)
Benn, Rt Hon Tony (Chesterfield)Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge)
Bermingham, GeraldClarke, Tony (Northampton S)
Berry, RogerClelland, David
Best, HaroldCoaker, Vernon
Betts, CliveCoffey, Ms Ann
Blackman, LizCohen, Harry
Blears, Ms HazelColeman, Iain
Blizzard, BobColman, Tony
Boateng, Rt Hon PaulConnarty, Michael
Borrow, DavidCook, Frank (Stockton N)
Bradley, Keith (Withington)Corbett, Robin
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)Cousins, Jim
Bradshaw, BenCox, Tom
Brown, Russell (Dumfries)Cranston, Ross
Browne, DesmondCrausby, David
Buck, Ms KarenCryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)
Burden, RichardCryer, John (Hornchurch)

Cummings, JohnJones, Helen (Warrington N)
Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr Jack (Copeland)Jones, Ms Jenny (Wolverh"ton SW)
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)
Dalyell, TamJowell, Rt Hon Ms Tessa
Darvill, KeithKeen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)Kemp, Fraser
Davidson, IanKennedy, Jane (Wavertree)
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)Kidney, David
Davis, Rt Hon Terry (B'ham Hodge H)Kilfoyle, Peter
King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)
Dawson, HiltonKumar, Dr Ashok
Denham, JohnLadyman, Dr Stephen
Dismore, AndrewLaxton, Bob
Dobbin, JimLepper, David
Donohoe, Brian HLeslie, Christopher
Doran, FrankLevitt, Tom
Dowd, JimLewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Drew, DavidLewis, Terry (Worsley)
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)Linton, Martin
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)Love, Andrew
Edwards, HuwMcAvoy, Thomas
Efford, CliveMcCartney, Rt Hon Ian (Makerfield)
Ellman, Mrs Louise
Ennis, JeffMcDonagh, Siobhain
Etherington, BillMacdonald, Calum
Fisher, MarkMcDonnell, John
Fitzsimons, LornaMcFall, John
Flint, CarolineMcIsaac, Shona
Flynn, PaulMcKenna, Mrs Rosemary
Foster, Michael J (Worcester)Mackinlay, Andrew
Foulkes, GeorgeMcNamara, Kevin
Fyfe, MariaMcNulty, Tony
Gapes, MikeMacShane, Denis
Gardiner, BarryMactaggart, Fiona
Gerrard, NeilMcWalter, Tony
Gibson, Dr IanMcWilliam, John
Gilroy, Mrs LindaMahon, Mrs Alice
Goggins, PaulMallaber, Judy
Gordon, Mrs EileenMarsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Griffilhs, Win (Bridgend)Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Grogan, JohnMarshall—Andrews, Robert
Hain, PeterMartlew, Eric
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)Maxton, John
Hall, Patrick (Bedford)Meacher, Rt Hon Michael
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)Meale, Alan
Hanson, DavidMerron, Gillian
Healey, JohnMichie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)
Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)Milburn, Rt Hon Alan
Hepburn, StephenMiller, Andrew
Heppell, JohnMitchell, Austin
Hesford, StephenMoffatt, Laura
Hill, KeithMoonie, Dr Lewis
Hinchliffe, DavidMoran, Ms Margaret
Hodge, Ms MargaretMorgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)
Hoey, KateMorris, Rt Hon Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Hood, Jimmy
Hope, PhilMountford, Kali
Hopkins, KelvinMudie, George
Howarth, George (Knowsley N)Mullin, Chris
Hoyle, LindsayMurphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)Murphy, Rt Hon Paul (Torfaen)
Humble, Mrs JoanNaysmith, Dr Doug
Hurst, AlanO'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
Hutton, JohnO'Brien, Mike (N Warks)
Iddon, Dr BrianO'Hara, Eddie
Illsley, EricO'Neill, Martin
Jamieson, DavidOrgan, Mrs Diana
Jenkins, BrianPearson, Ian
Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)Pendry, Tom
Perham, Ms Linda
Jones, Rt Hon Barry (Alyn)Pickthall, Colin
Jones, Mrs Fiona (Newark)Pike, Peter L

Plaskitt, JamesStevenson, George
Pollard, KerryStewart, David (Inverness E)
Pond, ChrisStewart, Ian (Eccles)
Pope, GregStinchcombe, Paul
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Primarolo, DawnTaylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Prosser, GwynTaylor, David (NW Leics)
Purchase, KenTemple—Morris, Peter
Quin, Rt Hon Ms JoyceThomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Quinn, LawrieThomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Radice, Rt Hon GilesTimms, Stephen
Rammell, BillTipping, Paddy
Rapson, SydTodd, Mark
Raynsford, NickTouhig, Don
Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)Trickett, Jon
Reid, Rt Hon Dr John (Hamilton N)Truswell, Paul
Rooker, Rt Hon JeffTurner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Rooney TerryTurner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Rowlands, TedTurner, Neil (Wigan)
Roy FrankTwigg, Derek (Halton)
Ruane, ChrisTwigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Ruddock, JoanTynan, Bill
Russell Ms Christine (Chester)Vis, Dr Rudi
Salter, MartinWalley, Ms Joan
Sarwar, MohammadWard, Ms Claire
Watts, David
Savidge, MalcolmWhitehead, Dr Alan
Sawford, PhilWicks, Malcolm
Sedgemore, BrianWilliams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Sheerman, Barry
Sheldon, Rt Hon RobertWilliams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Shipley, Ms DebraWilliams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)Wills, Michael
Singh, MarshaWinnick, David
Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Smith, Angela (Basildon)Wise, Audrey
Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)Woodward, Shaun
Smith, John (Glamorgan)Woolas, Phil
Snape, PeterWright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Southworth, Ms Helen
Squire, Ms Rachel

Tellers for the Noes:

Starkey, Dr Phyllis

Mrs. Anne McGuire and

Steinberg, Gerry

Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe.

Question accordingly negatived.