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GOVERNMENT FACES DEFEAT OVER LONDON ELECTION RULES

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Hansard 15 Feb: Column 881- 923 ...
Hansard 15 Feb: Column 881- 923

The government was warned in the early hours of this morning that it faces defeat in the lords if it does not change mind and allow London mayoral and assembly candidates a free mailshot to the capital's five million voters.

Labour MPs supported the arguments put forward on behalf of all other parties in the commons that the size of the electorate and the significance the new London institutions meant that a free mailshot should be provided - as it was in Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish elections, all with smaller electorates.

DETR ministers Nick Raynsford and Keith Hill gave no indication of any concessions during debates on an opposition attempt to annul the Greater London Authority Elections Rules Order, and on the government's motion to approve the Greater London Authority (Election Expenses) Order. The government comfortably won both votes, but was told peers from all parties would defeat the government next week unless it had a change of heart.

Ministers insisted the London elections were local elections, and local elections did not have free mailshots. But, as MPs pointed out, local elections did not require deposits. If the government wanted new rules for city-wide elections, it should draft them, not introduce a hyybrid system.

Conservative spokesman Bernard Jenkin said: 'We are genuinely mystified as to why the government has got themselves into this position, 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'.

Conservative and Liberal Democrat peers have already drafted an amendment to add a new clause to the Representation of the People Bill, currently before the lords, which would introduce new rules for the London elections - including a free mailshot for candidates.

Diane Abbot, Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington, said: '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 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'.

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman said ministers had speculated the mailshots might cost about£30m - which was questioned - but polling cards had to be delivered and that delivery could be combined with the free post delivery.

John McDonnell, Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington, former secretary of the Association of London Authorities, said: 'Let me say this to my own side. We can play games with party rules; we can manipulate selections - I suppose 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...

'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'.

Mr Hill told MPs: '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'.

He told Mr Hughes that electoral registration officers had told the home office that the task of producing a composite free mailing with the polling cards would undermine their independent role in the elections.

Mr Hughes said MPs from all parts of the country and all parts of the commons were saying the government had about seven days in which to think again. If they did not, 'they will be making a terrible political mistake'.

He said: 'The government have to come up with an alternative, because if they persist in their approach, they will be defeated. That is a solution they do not want - and neither do we, because we want the election to go ahead'.

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