Peers threat to mayor poll in mail row

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The Government tonight refused to allow London Mayoral candidates a free mail delivery for the May elections, despite the threat of a rare Lords defeat on the issue next week.

The Government tonight refused to allow London Mayoral candidates a free mail delivery for the May elections, despite the threat of a rare Lords defeat on the issue next week.

Tory and Liberal Democrat peers have threatened to vote down regulations on the poll - potentially preventing the election from happening - if ministers do not grant a free post to candidates for Mayor and members of the Greater London Assembly.

It would be the first time since 1968 that the Lords have rejected secondary legislation: peers had then voted down the Southern Rhodesia Sanctions Order.

The Opposition parties argue that the Mayoral elections, with a London-wide electorate of more than five million, are equivalent to Parliamentary elections and those for last year's Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.

They warn that the cost of postage will discriminate against the less well-off parties, including the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Green Party.

But ministers insist the polls are no different from council elections, where there is no free post.

Junior Home Office minister Lord Bassam of Brighton also warned that, at £750,000 per party, the cost of a free post delivery could soon exceed the total budget of the Mayor and Assembly.

The issue was raised by Tory peers' deputy leader Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish during committee stage of the Representation of the People Bill.

He warned Lord Bassam: "This is a matter we take extremely seriously indeed. We have to draw the Government up short on what we think is a major error on their part."

Lord Goodhart, for the Liberal Democrats, added: "This is a very serious issue and I must warn the Government that we will use every possible method to obtain the right to a free mail shot, including support for Lord Mackay when he moves his 'prayer' next week."

Another Liberal Democrat front bencher, Lord McNally, said later: "The service we are doing to the minister tonight is to tell him, if he is any doubt, the gun is loaded."

But, at the end of a 75-minute debate, Lord Bassam gave no hint of any concession on the issue. He told peers: "The Government opposes the amendment, and for very good reasons."

The regulations on the Greater London Authority elections are due to be approved by the Commons tomorrow. Peers will debate them next Tuesday.

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