From Wednesday’s Hansard:
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Representation of the People Acts in respect of deceased candidates.
Obviously, I should begin by declaring a recent interest in this subject. May I also say to you, Mr. Speaker, and to Members in all parts of the House, how grateful I have been for the welcome that I have received on my delayed return to the House? Although I realise that that welcome has been genuine, it has also been partly prompted by the fact that every Member knows that there but for the grace of God could he or she have gone. I seek to save any colleague in any part of the House from having to face the sort of long ordeal that I had to face in May and June. I am grateful to the Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs both for her helpful encouragement and for her presence here today.
I shall explain briefly why I seek to bring in the Bill. On 1 May I became the victim of a law drawn up in an era when most election contests were either straight fights or three-cornered ones, before the proliferation of candidates that is now so common in almost every constituency.
There are four main defects in the law. First, the party affected by the death of the candidate has no chance either to field a substitute or to withdraw from the election. Secondly, the law does not distinguish in any way between candidates. If any one of the Prime Minister’s 14 opponents had died, right up until the declaration of his result, he could not have been elected on 5 May. And if Catherine Taylor-Dawson of the Vote for Yourself Rainbow Dream Ticket party had died, there would have been chaos in Wales. She obtained one vote—presumably her own—in Cardiff, North, but she also stood in all three other Cardiff seats, polling a total of less than 300 votes in all four. If she had died, Cardiff would not have been represented in the House at all—and I remember the day, in 1974, when the Government had an overall majority of four. Colleagues should reflect briefly on the consequences of such an action. And what if a single candidate stood against every Member for the Cabinet and then committed suicide? [Hon. Members: “Any volunteers?”] Those are all practical possibilities.
Thirdly, the length of the delay is surely inordinate. Twenty-eight days after the proof of death the writ is reactivated, which gives a minimum of seven weeks’ delay before the new election.
Fourthly, new entrants are allowed into the field. Although the new election is supposed to be, and indeed legally is, part of the general election, new candidates who had not signified their original intention to stand are allowed to enter.
My Bill does not propose to allow dead candidates to be elected, as in the United States, but I propose that the party affected by the death should have choice of withdrawing or substituting a candidate, and that if necessary, a delay of 72 hours would be allowed for the reprinting of ballot papers.
I am also suggesting that the law should not apply to any independent candidate. An “independent” candidate—three of the Prime Minister’s opponents were designated merely by that word—is by definition sui generis, unique, so if such a candidates dies, that is the end of the matter; nobody can substitute. That should not hold up an election. The law should not apply to any party that polled less than 10 per cent. in the constituency concerned at the previous general election, or less than 5 per cent. nationally, if the party did not contest the constituency concerned. That would solve the problem of maverick or mischievous candidates bringing constitutional chaos to the country. I also suggest that no candidate should be allowed to stand in more than one constituency.
My final main proposition is that the delay between the death and the new polling day should in no circumstances be more than 28 days. Last time such a thing happened was in 1951, and in those days the law said that no more than 14 days should pass. Perhaps that timing was a little tight, but 28 days should be ample even for a major party to find another candidate.
Finally, no new candidate who had not signified an intention to stand in the original election should be allowed to stand in the rescheduled election. Nor should any major party be allowed to substitute its original candidate without the certification of the returning officer that the reason is a genuine and acceptable one. I had a new Labour opponent and I am not suggesting that the reasons for the substitution were anything other than genuine and entirely acceptable, but I do not believe that substitution should be automatically allowed.
As it stands, the law at the moment qualifies for Mr. Bumble’s famous description that the law “is an ass”. It needs changing because the case that I have illustrated has brought to wider public attention what can be done by mischief makers or malevolent people. I am most anxious that, before the next general election, we should have tidied up the law.
What I am proposing is a partial repeal of that worst of all laws—the law of unintended consequences. I very much hope that all Members on both sides of the House will feel able to join me and my distinguished sponsors and give the measure a fair wind.