Elections Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:14 pm on 5th April 2001.

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Photo of Lord Hanningfield Lord Hanningfield Conservative 5:14 pm, 5th April 2001

My Lords, as many noble Lords will know, I am the leader of Essex County Council and therefore have a direct interest in the elections. I am standing again. I have already printed my leaflets. Therefore, I have already incurred some expense. But I am not asking for compensation for that. I agree with noble Lords who have said today that candidates should not be reimbursed for expenses already incurred, but certainly councils' expenses should be reimbursed. I may return to that in a moment.

Essex was the first county with an outbreak of the foot and mouth disease. It was first found there. I live in a village which had one of the first signs saying, "You are now entering a foot and mouth restricted area". For many weeks I have been saying that we should know what we are doing. There has been total confusion in local government over the past few weeks. Although the position has now been clarified by the Government, I wish that that had been done earlier. I have many friends in Devon and Cumbria, and it was quite apparent two or three weeks ago that there could be no county council elections in those counties. I come from a farming background and I know of the chaos and crisis in those two counties. In the rural counties, such as Devon and Cumbria, most local government members represent the countryside.

Several noble Lords have referred to the confusion and I, too, should like to concentrate on it. I am the leader of a council which had planned an annual meeting. I ask the Minister to clarify the situation as regards such meetings. Clearly, there can be no annual meetings of councils with elections pending until after those elections have taken place. Therefore, it should be stated in the Bill that the annual meetings of councils with forthcoming elections should be held afterwards. I gather from the Explanatory Notes that the measure is designed for all councils because there may be by-elections which affect the balance of power in such councils. Any council can now have its annual meeting in June, but I should like clarification of when those meetings should be held. As has already been said, this affects fire and police authorities where in particular the county members could alter the balance of power. I should like some clarity on those issues.

Management of a county will be very difficult for the next month or two because, as has already been said today, by the end of June we have to submit our proposals for the new modernisation agenda. I hope that the Government will allow some latitude in the dates because if we are not to have elections until early June, and if we have our annual meeting in the middle of that month, it will be impossible to submit proposals to the Government by the end of June for the reform of local government structures. I hope that the Government will comment on that.

My noble friend Lady Young spoke about meetings. We had some planned for the new council after May. As the leader of the council, I shall have to consider how we can manage the business of the council until we have an annual meeting in June. It is difficult because in Essex the Labour leader is retiring and many of my most able councillors are not standing again, mainly because of age. All three parties will have quite a change-over of county councillors. Many of them have planned holidays and visits with their wives to see their children. There is quite a difficult management problem for my county over the next few months. Both my noble friend Lady Young and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, referred to this matter. I hope that the House will understand our difficulty.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth and with my noble friend Lady Young that this Bill raises constitutional issues. We have had certainty in local government about elections. Now, for the first time in my 30 years' experience, it is being changed. I support the Bill because of the crisis in the country, but this is something which we would not wish to see again. I hope that we can do something about the constitutional arrangements for the local government elections so that there is some certainty about our election dates. I support the Bill at this stage, but I wish that we had had it earlier.