Queen's recommendation having been signified—
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Representation of the People Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any expenses incurred by the Secretary of State in consequence of the provisions of the Act relating to the free delivery of election addresses at the first Greater London Authority mayoral election.—[Mr. McNulty.]
We are dealing with a money resolution that results from an altercation between the opposition parties and the Government about the issue of free mailshots for candidates in the London elections. I am pleased to inform the House that the Government have been forced into the most miserable and humiliating climbdown on the issue.
The last time I stood at the Dispatch Box to discuss the matter, I explained that it was important because the London elections are extremely important. We are dealing with an electorate of 5.1 million people. The precedent set by the Government in their legislation for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the European elections and for parliamentary elections established the principle that free mailing should be available to candidates. I pointed out the need to promote a high turnout and fairness in the elections. It is a matter of democracy. Election rules should be agreed by consensus among the parties, as they always have been, rather than the governing party abusing its position to impose on all the other parties its view of how the elections should be conducted.
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. the Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), put up all the old canards about why the Government could not allow that to happen. First, he said that the London election was a local election. That reason was repeated in the Upper House when these matters were debated there, despite the fact that the Government were already arranging experimental free mailings for the Watford local elections under the Bill.
The Minister put up ludicrous scare stories about the cost of free mailings in the elections, which were exposed in this House and the other place as utterly fraudulent. Finally, there was the curry house argument—the idea that every two-bit restaurant in London would put up candidates for the London Assembly and the London mayoralty in order to advertise its take-away services.
In the other place, the arguments for truth, fairness and democracy prevailed. As the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) said, it was a question not of the elected House versus the peers, but of the Government versus the people, with the peers representing the people—and the peers won. They caught the Government ballot rigging.
Not only did the Government attempt to rig the ballot for the selection of their candidate for mayor, they attempted to rig the election itself and, indeed, before they made the concession, they threatened to rig the voting in the House of Lords by appointing extra peers in order to get their way there as well. The Government would rig the entire constitution in their fit of pique and determination to get their way.
Will my hon. Friend remind the House that during the campaign before the last election, the Labour party called for a voice for London? Will he ask why the Government now want to make that such a muted voice, unable even to communicate with London?
I agree with my right hon. Friend. The Government's political and constitutional project is designed to create a voice for the Prime Minister in every corner of the United Kingdom, and to stifle dissent.
In the London election, the Government are about to send an expensive booklet containing information about how wonderful their constitutional reforms are, but they want to deny the same right to the candidates standing in the elections. They have been forced by the Upper House into a dramatic U-turn.
I want to question the Minister about the money resolution, because although the Government have been forced to concede the principle, they have been crabbed, bitter and grudging in their concessions on the detail. They have insisted not on the right of individual candidates to send their election manifestos in separate envelopes or even in a joint envelope to the electors, but on creating an A5 booklet. Candidates will have to send their camera-ready copy to be edited and included in a booklet that will be stapled together and contain the candidates' addresses. What sort of constitutional abomination are we considering?
It should be put on the record that the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) said "Alastair" in response to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) asked. I presume that he means Alastair Campbell, who is the press secretary at No. 10 Downing street. I fear that the hon. Gentleman may be right; I shall give way to him so that he can dig his hole even deeper.
I rest my case on the size of the hole that the hon. Gentleman is in.
There is a mess. I accept that the other place has let the unsatisfactory measure pass because it rightly wanted the London elections to be conducted in an orderly fashion, and without chaos descending on them. However, the Government have consequently taken advantage of the leniency and reasonableness of the other place. There is a constitutional mess, which involves the stapled A5 booklet. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham asked a good question, which the Minister should answer: who decides on the order in which the A5 leaflets are printed and stapled together?
The hon. Gentleman claims that it is the alphabet. We are back to the hereditary principle that God will decide. The leaflets have nothing to do with fairly conducted elections, for which our original proposal would have provided.
The second Mr. Dobson lives in my constituency. His name is Frank S. Dobson. I believe therefore that his name would appear below that of the official Labour party candidate on the ballot paper.
Order. The money resolution is a narrow matter. There will be an opportunity to discuss booklets, leaflets and ballot papers later.
Of course I shall concentrate on the money resolution, but the current debate is not part of the time-limited debate that follows. I fear that some hon. Members may not want us to reach the relevant amendments.
I shall keep to the money resolution because it compounds the mess that the Government are creating as they try to wriggle off the hook of the concessions that they have given. The money is provided not only for the booklet but, according to the money resolution, for
the first Greater London Authority mayoral election.
My noble Friends thought that they were extracting a concession on the conduct of London elections in the future and in perpetuity, for as long as elections shall exist in London, and providing through their amendment a general power for the Government to supply free mailings not only for mayoral candidates but for Assembly candidates at some future date. However, it turns out that the money resolution, which we are attaching to the Lords amendment and which gives Ministers the power to authorise such free mailings, applies solely to this election.
We are compounding the constitutional mess that the Government have created by setting a precedent for free mailings in London elections, but the Government clearly have no intention to honour it at a future mayoral election. That may be an academic matter for Labour Members, but they may not be sitting on the Government Benches after the general election. The measure will make the mess that they have created so much worse and I ask the Minister to explain why a freepost is right for this election, but not others. He would not have tabled the money resolution if he did not agree with that proposition. Goodness me, I cannot believe that he is about to stand at the Dispatch Box and say something in which he does not believe.
If the measure is right for this election, why is it not right for all elections? Why has the Minister's Department—perhaps it was the hapless Deputy Prime Minister again—been so ineffective in its negotiations with the Treasury that it has been unable to secure the money and a general power to authorise expenditure on future free mailings?
This is the closing chapter of a miserable saga of hypocrisy and ballot rigging by the Government, and they are crowning it with the most miserable and backward-looking climbdown from the position from which they started. They said that the elections should not have free mailings, but now those will take place. The Minister should make the long-term policy clear foi that reason—although we shall not vote against the money resolution—or is he merely going to carry on doing what is convenient for his party in government, regardless of the interests of democracy in this country?
I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) will reflect on the answer that we hope to receive from the Minister before we decide whether to divide the House. It is far from clear that we should not divide.
A number of questions need to be asked and answered, but before I come to them, may I say that I am extremely glad that the measure is not going through on the nod, which was the Government's intention? I intend to pose some of those questions, and I suspect that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), for one, will ask others. First, why are individual candidates being asked to contribute £10,000 rather than some other sum? There must be some logic in fixing £10,000 as the contribution. I ask the Minister, why £10,000 and not some other sum?
Secondly, if the candidates are to contribute £10,000, what balance will fall to the Exchequer? So far as I can see, the bill is not quantified. Surely we are entitled to know exactly how much the measure will cost us. If it is neither enough nor too much, the House might decide to divide on this matter.
There is another question of considerable importance. Why was it decided to fix on a collective delivery? Applying ordinary principles, I should have thought that individual candidates were entitled to have their election addresses delivered separately. A point of principle is involved. If they are delivered collectively, who is to ensure that the Labour party does not, in one way or another, tamper with the material of the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone)?
As a matter of fact, the Government are tampering with it in the legislation, because they have stipulated the order in which the election addresses will be printed. Surprise, surprise! The name of the hon. Member for Brent, East will not appear first in the bundle. It will be preceded by the Labour party's official candidate. That may be a coincidence, but I should be extraordinarily surprised if it was.
The Government have so ordered the election of the Labour party candidate as to cheat one of their own hon. Members. They have so ordered the legislation as to compound the sin. We are being asked, on the nod, to acquiesce in a fraud. I hope that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench will decide not to allow this fraud to go on the nod, and to vote against it. I suspect that some of my right hon. Friends will now speak in similar vein.
Be that as it may, the story of the money resolution began a long time ago, on 28 January last year, in the Standing Committee considering the Greater London Authority Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) asked the then Minister with responsibility for London, the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), about expenses for the Greater London Authority election. The hon. Gentleman went on to run a candidate's campaign—he may now regret that, and think that he would have been better staying as Minister for London, but that is a matter for him.
On 28 January, the then Minister for London said:
We do not want to hang about, but I remind him that there are still some 15 months to go before the election of a mayor. We have plenty of time to consider the issue carefully, take on board all relevant matters and introduce sensible, practical expenses limits which will have the desired effect.—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 28 January 1999; c. 84.]
Time did not slow down, but Government activity seemed to get into some difficulty. It was not until 15 December that the consultation on expenses limits began. The Government asked for replies before the end of the Christmas holidays. They said, "You may not be able to get round to it, but that will be fine by us."
When it came to the consultation, my hon. Friends and I, and others, suggested that the Government should consider the little issue of a freepost. When the Bill was last before the House, I asked the Minister whether anyone had argued against a freepost in response to the consultation, and the answer was that no one had suggested that there should not be a freepost. To use the words of the then Minister, having had plenty of time to consider the issue carefully, take on board all the relevant matters and introduce sensible, practical expenses limits, the Government asked for views and then ignored them completely. They decided to resist the idea that for an electorate of 5 million people there should be a freepost.
It was not, therefore, altogether surprising that, when we debated the Representation of the People Bill on Second Reading, the issue did not come up on the money resolution. The clear implication all along had been that the money for the expenses would be dealt with under the Greater London Authority Bill (Election Expenses) Order. That was always the intention; that was what the consultation was about; and everyone expected that all the election expenses would be dealt with as a bit of business ancillary to the Bill. But, lo and behold, when it was suggested that we ought to have a freepost, the Government thought up another wheeze. The wheeze was, "We're terribly sorry, but you cannot have a freepost under the Greater London Authority Bill (Election Expenses) Order, because we would have to change major legislation, namely, the Representation of the People Bill."
Only last month, we began the second round of the debate. We became involved in a discussion with the new Minister responsible for London about the freepost for the London elections. The short history of the next month showed that the Government are not very good at maths.
I had not, but I think we have no better example of how bad they are at maths than what followed.
When asked about a freepost on 15 February, the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), said:
The total cost to the public purse of a free mailshot would be very significant. The total could well be over £10 million and possibly as much as £20 million, depending on the number of candidates … Such costs would be disproportionate to the GLA's proposed budget of some £35 million, and would be equivalent to more than £3 for every council tax payer in London.—[Official Report, 15 February 2000; Vol. 344, c. 902.]
The truth is that the Government were exaggerating just a teeny weeny bit. By the time the Bill reached the other place and Lord Bassam spoke, the cost was well and truly up to £30 million and there was speculation that it might be significantly more.
In Committee in the House of Lords, the Under-Secretary, Lord Bassam, had suggested that a freepost would mean a blank cheque.
Or not, as the case may be.
On leap year's day, 29 February, Lord Bassam said on the Floor of the House of Lords that, following negotiation:
we came up with a formula which reduces the cost considerably.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 29 February 2000; Vol. 610, c. 497.]
Over two weeks of negotiation, it appeared that the freepost would not cost £20 million or £30 million, but might only cost about £2 million. That was the argument that some of us had put in the first place, and, indeed, the argument that the Electoral Reform Society—which knows a bit about these matters—had put in the first place.
As the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) said, we now have cause for a second money motion, just to sneak in the authority for this itsy-bitsy extra bit of money that the Government thought was £20 million, but which has now fallen to £2 million.
The hon. Gentleman is having good fun, but he would not want to mislead the House, would he? He knows that we are talking about different things, and he knows that different things were discussed in another place. Are we discussing whether there would be a single mailshot to every voter, which would cost £750,000 per candidate—if there were 20 candidates, the cost could be £15 million—or are we discussing a much more disputable concept? While the hon. Gentleman has fun, let him be careful not to mislead the House over what was discussed in another place.
The threats are a bit late in the day. The deal has been done. The Minister was party to many of the negotiations. He knows perfectly well that the argument from the Government Benches all along was that it could not be done, was not achievable, could not be delivered and was not manageable.
It was the Opposition who put forward the idea that the literature could all be stuffed into one envelope, could be delivered at the same time and could be delivered with the polling card, which had to be delivered to every elector in any event, so we always thought that it could be done at low cost. The independent advice that the Minister has received has clearly borne out the fact that we were right and the Government were always wrong.
Before the hon. Gentleman leaves the point, has he noticed that the Minister has given away something very important? The cost could be £15 million only if there were 20 candidates. If he is suggesting that, at one stage, it was £30 million, he must have imagined that there would be 40 candidates for the mayor of London. Has anyone ever conceived of there being 40 candidates? Now we have so few, is it possible that the Government were covering their tracks, lest all those who chose the Labour party candidate decided that, instead, they would stand themselves?
I did attribute it.
The Government might well have dreamt that there would be 40 candidates, all from the same party. Anything was possible, but we have a proposition. We should never have reached the stage of having to battle for it. Every elector should have the opportunity to read what every duly nominated candidate wants to put to them. It was the only way in which it could be done. It means that every elector will receive some literature. To its shame, the Labour party has resisted that until the last minute. I hope that we never hear such nonsensical and badly justified arguments again.
I had not intended to intrude on the debate, and I apologise to the House if I do not appear to share the view of some that the proceedings are a joke. I may be rather old-fashioned, but I happen to believe that this country's electoral law is very precious and that the rules under which we fight elections are a particular responsibility of the House. The Government have an overwhelming majority in the House and can carry anything against the opposition parties here. They have a peculiar responsibility to respect that. There was a tradition that, if such changes were introduced, there would be a Speaker's Conference and all-party agreement would be sought on what the rules should be for an election.
I am making a serious point. I happen to represent a constituency that, 130 years ago, was disfranchised because of the corruption there. It was not exclusive to the constituency: there was a great deal of corruption in this country. One of the traditions of our democracy, of which I hope we are all proud, is that, over the centuries, we have sought to establish higher standards for the holding of elections than exist in some countries. [Interruption.]
I hope that all hon. Members are proud of the standards in this country according to which elections are held; we all fight elections and come to serve our constituents—proud that we have fought the elections under the fairest rules in the world.
I accept the Government's right to introduce new arrangements. Although I do not believe in the idea of a new mayor for London, the Government are entitled to create the position. The proposal was made in their manifesto, and they are entitled to it. They have introduced the legislation, and there will be a mayor.
Today, we are talking about the arrangements under which an election will be fought. Something that did worry me, particularly in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), was the statement that the proposals will affect only the first mayoral election. That does not stack up. We all know the power of precedent. As we also know, the Government's policy is to try to introduce elected mayors to other parts of the United Kingdom, in the cities that desire to have them. Today, undoubtedly, we are debating arrangements that will set precedents that could have wide application.
I am sorry, as I said, to interfere with the jollity that some hon. Members may think the debate warrants, but there are some serious principles at stake. I think that the Minister will support me in saying that, if the arrangements for the London election applied to general election practice, the Government would not have dreamt of introducing them without seeking all-party agreement, possibly in a Speaker's Conference. We are treating the mayoral election as if it were a one-off, and not as the precedent for a much wider electoral system.
I tell the Minister—who I think is listening seriously to what I am saying, unlike the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley), who seems to regard the matter as a joke, which I do not—that we really must consider very seriously the arrangements that are made. It would be devastatingly damaging if the image were created that there has been an attempt at ballot rigging to enable the Government to avoid embarrassment.
In this case, the Government are proceeding not by a Speaker's Conference on electoral arrangements, but by virtue of their majority in the House. They must therefore be exceptionally scrupulous in the way in which they introduce the arrangements.
No. I apologise to my right hon. and learned Friend, but I want to make only a brief speech. I am speaking because I have not enjoyed the first exchanges in the debate. For those of us who care about the House of Commons and the standards of democracy in the United Kingdom, this is a very important issue.
Mr. Speaker, I shall have to speak more often in the Chamber, as my name is not sufficiently in your mind. I shall rectify that before you even know it.
One of the problems with the motion is that it is all the wrong way round. We are being asked to give our approval to a money resolution before we know which amendments to the Bill the House will agree to. It is possible that we may not agree to any of the amendments. We may not agree, particularly, either to the amendment to which the money resolution partly refers, or to an amendment to that amendment. We are therefore being asked—it really is unacceptable—to give the Government a blank cheque, presumably on the basis of the Minister saying, in the usual way, "Trust me."
My right hon. Friend will also want to remind the House that that is contrary to precedent. The usual rule is to have Second Reading, which deals with policy, followed by a debate on the money resolution. On this occasion, it is the other way round.
I sometimes think that Ministers are not interested in precedent, but will ride roughshod, as they see fit, over any convention or precedent. This debate is yet another example of the same practice.
The problem, as hon. Members have said, is that we cannot possibly know the eventual scope of the money resolution. The fact that it will apply only to the first Greater London Authority mayoral election is stated in the money resolution itself, which leaves some very interesting questions about how subsequent elections may be funded. Conversely, it may suggest that only for this election will those arrangements be made, and that, subsequently, no such arrangements will be made. The Minister will have to clarify the position.
My right hon. Friend has touched on a procedural difficulty, which we have encountered because of the late stage at which the amendments have been tabled. Not only do the amendments have no line numbers because of the rush to get them here, but some of the amendments that we tabled have not been called because they are proscribed by this narrow money resolution. Some amendments that the Opposition parties wanted to debate have not been called because they do not fit in with the money resolution and are, therefore, outwith the scope of the Bill.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Have you the discretion to reorder the business so that the money resolution can be taken after the debate on the Lords amendments? If you were to do that, some of the amendments that we wish to have discussed would not be proscribed by the form of the money resolution.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is as aware of the procedures of the House as I am. The money resolution is necessary for the House to go on to debate the Lords amendments, which will come at a later stage. Without the money resolution, we would not be able to debate, accept or reject the Lords amendments.
That presents us with a great temptation to try to vote down the money resolution. That would have an admirable effect.
We can see the real difficulty in which the House finds itself. However, that is the fault not of the House but of the Government, who have typically muddled the Bill from start to finish.
It certainly was not the Chair. The Standing Orders of the House are made by the House itself, and the hon. Gentleman is part of that procedure.
I am conscious of the passage of time, and I want to leave the Minister time to answer the questions.
Does the provision apply to the election of the mayor alone, or to all the Assembly candidates? If not, will the Assembly candidates be denied the facility? Lords amendment No. 34 would insert a new clause, which refers to the possibility that the mailing may not be in booklet form. Subsection (4)(d) admits of the possibility of
separate mailings in respect of the free delivery of election addresses.
That would have serious cost implications, and the Minister must tell us more about that. The Lords amendments also refer to whether the mailings will be delivered by the Post Office or by some other means.
The Minister must explain what will happen before we can judge whether the money resolution will involve expenditure of £1 million, £2 million or £20 million.
We must know the Minister's answers to the questions about Assembly candidates, separate addresses, the booklet and whether the mailing will be delivered by the Post Office or otherwise—all those points are referred to in the Lords amendments—before we can make up our minds on the money resolution. I shall conclude my remarks, because I see that the Minister is anxious to answer the questions—although I shall believe it when I see it.
It is a pleasure to reply to such a congenial debate. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), who spoke for the Liberal Democrats, and the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), who spoke for the Conservative party, have had their little dose of yah-boo-sucks politics for tonight, so perhaps we can get on with discussing the serious business before the House.
A money resolution is needed to authorise the use of public funds to provide for the free mailing and the delivery of a booklet of election addresses by mayoral candidates contesting the first GLA election. The resolution also authorises the use of public funds to pay for the cost of printing 5 million copies of the booklet. The precise cost to public funds of printing will depend on how many candidates want to include their election address in the booklet and pay the required £10,000 per candidate contribution towards printing costs. If the sum of the financial contributions from the candidates does not exceed the total cost of printing, the difference will be met from public funds
The cost may be met by the candidates or it may not be. However, we decided to set a limit of £10,000 on the sum that they would contribute. Obviously, during a mayoral election, they would contribute some money if there were not that sort of public funding.
What amazed me was that the hon. Member for North Essex said that he wanted a general power to authorise public spending on free mailshots in elections, and he wanted the Home Office to seek that authorisation from the Treasury. In this place and in the other place, the Conservative party has sought to use taxpayers' subsidies for their council candidates by law. The Tories say that they oppose public subsidies for political parties, but now they demand public spending. They tell the electorate that they want fewer tax burdens, but when it suits them they want to burden the taxpayer with funding Tory candidates in council elections.
No, I will not give way.
At least the Liberal Democrats have the consistency of supporting public funding for their political party throughout. Conservatives say publicly that they do not support that, but when it comes to some financial difficulty that they may have, despite donations from foreigners to subsidise their candidates, they call for a general power from the Treasury to authorise public spending for free mailshots, which will benefit them.
Opposition Members were prepared to dish it out, now let them listen to a bit of it.
The Government did not provide for each candidate to be entitled to send mail post-free because of the potential cost to the public purse and the likelihood of abuse by unscrupulous candidates. We have resolved those concerns in what is essentially a compromise resolution brought before the House by us—a solution that met with agreement in the other place, including among its Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members.
The Post Office calculated that a single mailshot to every London elector would cost £750,000. As I have already said, it is not difficult to work out that if there were 20 candidates, the cost to the taxpayer would be £15 million, and if there were 40 candidates, it might well be £30 million. We do not yet know how many candidates will come before the electorate at the mayoral election. If each candidate is entitled to a free mailshot worth £750,000, the potential for abuse is enormous—[Interruption.] Yes, abuse. If I were an unscrupulous advertiser who wanted to advertise a particular business, I would only have to put down the £10,000 deposit to obtain £750,000 worth of free advertising for my business. Presumably, that is what the Tories want. I suspect that quite a few unscrupulous people might well decide to put their name to that, which is why we have included in the amendments provisions to deal with those who might be unscrupulous. That is why we want to ensure that those who stand for mayor will not be able to cause the taxpayer to spend enormous sums to benefit their commercial preferences.
We have brought forward a workable solution, which met with cross-party support in another place, and the amendments that we have tabled—
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Representation of the People Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any expenses incurred by the Secretary of State in consequence of the provisions of the Act relating to the free delivery of election addresses at the first Greater London Authority mayoral election.