The policing minister has been accused of talking "boring waffle" by BBC Today programme presenter Evan Davis, after Nick Herbert tried to deflect accusations that the forthcoming elections for Police and Crime Commissioners could lead to a low turnout.
The on-air bust up comes as independent candidates for November's elections in England and Wales have claimed the system will marginalise candidates who're not members of a political party. Despite calls for all candidates to be given a taxpayer-funded mailout sent to all homes, independent candidates' manifestos will only be published online by the Home Office.
Independent candidates say this puts them at a disadvantage because they don't have the money to send their campaign leaflets in the post, unlike those standing for a major party.
Ann Barnes, who is standing as an independent candidate in Kent, said the failure to give candidates a free mailshot to voters was "perverse and undemocratic".
"There's a very real threat that our police force, with its very long and very proud history, will be under the control of a political activist," she said.
The BBC reported on Tuesday morning that in more than a dozen force areas not one independent candidate had so far put their name forward for the elections, although the final list of who's standing won't be revealed for several weeks.
Nick Herbert appeared on the Today programme on Radio 4 on Tuesday morning to defend the government's system, insisting that a mailshot wasn't the only way candidates would reach voters. "Surely there is the local media, surely there are all the meetings they have to capture the public attention, surely there is new media," he told the programme.
Herbert added that giving all candidates a taxpayer-funded mailout would be too expensive. "The cost of an election address would be between £25-35 million. We simply felt that in the current climate that that was not a justifiable expense," he said.
But when challenged by Evan Davis, who suggested the elections were at risk of producing an exceptionally small turnout, possibly as low as 15 percent, Herbert was accused of talking "boring waffle" by refusing to say what a good result would be.
"It would be arbitrary," said Herbert. "I want the highest possible turnout."
"Why can't you answer the question?" asked Davis. "It's a perfectly reasonable question."
Herbert finally acknowledged: "Any turnout would give greater legitimacy than the existing system," referring to the police authorities the new elected chiefs will replace.
Listen to Nick Herbert's grilling by Evan Davis:
Commentators thought Herbert's response was at best evasive:
The Electoral Commission warned in March that, as a result of the Government's decision not to allow a mailshot, up to seven million people who did not use the internet could be disadvantaged.
Former deputy prime minister Lord Prescott, who is standing as a candidate in Hull, described the move as "scandalous".
"In my area of Humberside that will mean 170,000 people, mostly elderly, will be denied their democratic right to information on the candidates," he told the Lords.