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The BBC's Mark Mardell
"Most people in the Labour party want the date to stay at May 3rd"
 real 28k

The BBC's Rita Chakrabati
"It would be unfair to hold an election in these circumstances"
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Thursday, 1 March, 2001, 17:06 GMT
Doubt over elections date
Polling station
Local elections are scheduled for 3 May
Government sources have confirmed that ministers are considering postponing both the local and general elections as a result of the foot-and- mouth crisis.

The local council elections are scheduled for 3 May - the date on which it is widely assumed Tony Blair wants to call a general election.

MPs have said it would be unfair to hold an election where a part of our community is constrained form taking part

Nick Brown
But Agriculture Minister Nick Brown has used a BBC interview to call on MPs and political activists to stay away from farms.

Mr Brown said a number of MPs had lobbied ministers, arguing that "it would be unfair to hold an election in circumstances in which parts of our community are constrained from taking part".

Mr Brown added: "The implications are not lost on anyone."

'No plans'

But Downing Street has moved to play down speculation, saying there are no plans to change the date of the local elections and that no contingency planning is going on for it.

Nick Brown
'MPs should stay away from farms': Brown
Such a move would require emergency legislation.

One Downing Street source told BBC News that there had been no meetings held at Number 10 on the subject or papers submitted on it.

But ministers are clearly considering the steps that would be required.

Whether local elections, and possibly the general election, can still be held on 3 May may depend on whether foot-and-mouth disease can be contained in time to allow normal election canvassing to proceed.

Highly infectious

Animals can carry the highly infectious disease for up to 21 days before showing any symptoms.

That means the current ban on moving animals and visiting farms will have to stay in place for at least three weeks to prevent fresh infection.

As the Prime Minister must give at least 17 working days notice of a general election, the timing for a May poll is already looking tight and experts are predicting fresh outbreaks to come.

But the Liberal Democrat chief whip, Paul Tyler, told the BBC the elections could still go ahead even if the foot-and-mouth crisis was not over.

Special measures

He said special measures would be needed in areas where restrictions due to foot-and-mouth disease were still in force. These could include having no polling stations in parts of the country hit by the disease.

Paul Tyler
Paul Tyler says postal voting could be used
"We could use postal votes and telephone canvassing, and make sure that everyone still had their democratic opportunity," he said.

Elections are due to be held on 3 May for all 34 county councils in England, many of them in rural areas like Lincolnshire, Devon, Cornwall, Cumbria, Derbyshire and North Yorkshire.

Polls are also due in 11 unitary authorities, although in many of those only a third of council seats will be up for election this year.

Legislation needed

The House of Commons information office said legislation would need to be passed by 26 March to postpone the local elections scheduled for May.

A spokesman added that the only precedent for changing the date of scheduled local elections due to national factors was 1939, the year the Second World War began.

General elections are not held on any fixed date but a parliament can only last for five years. Within that period, the election date is at the discretion of the prime minister.

The most recent example of a contest being delayed beyond the widely-expected polling day was when the last Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan, decided not to call an election in October 1978 but to soldier on with his minority government into 1979.

The Winter of Discontent followed, and he lost to Margaret Thatcher in the following May, issuing in 18 years of Tory rule.

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See also:

02 Mar 01 | UK
Livestock ban to be relaxed
01 Mar 01 | UK
Farm disease takes hold
28 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Blair's election dilemma
28 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Foot-and-mouth 'could delay election'
15 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Labour gathers for election launchpad
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