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Clause 2

Volume 301: debated on Monday 24 November 1997

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Entitlement To Vote

I beg to move amendment No. 20, in clause 2, page 1, line 20, after 'borough', insert

'and in the district councils of Broxbourne, Elmbridge, Epping Forest, Epsom and Ewell, Hertsmere, Reigate and Banstead and Spelthorne.'
This is a probing amendment, dealing with an anomaly arising from the geographical coverage of the Metropolitan police, which comprises two distinct areas. The first is London, which has just over 7 million residents. Then there is the area outside London, with approximately 500,000 residents, which includes parts of Essex, Hertfordshire and Surrey, but not Kent or Buckinghamshire.

The origins of that situation are historical. There has been no serious complaint about it because the administration of the Metropolitan police is non-political. However, for the first time since 1829, the Metropolitan police area is to be brought under political control. The Green Paper says that it will be controlled by
"a police authority with a majority of elected representatives.
" It will be more appropriate to consider the merits of that when we come to debate the substantive Bill next year.

The new police committee will be dominated by London members—at least half will be London assemblymen—whose thinking will be inappropriate in all respects for the home counties. It is important to remember that the parts of Essex, Hertfordshire and Surrey concerned are not suburbs but rural areas, which require a special type of policing that is not necessarily the strong point of an inner-city assemblyman.

Some of the people who will be affected by the proposals are not eligible to vote in the referendum. The Government are introducing a change that will be London dominated. Those who will dominate will be consulted in the referendum but those in the home counties will not. That is undemocratic and unconstitutional, raising doubts about the effectiveness of crime fighting in the home counties. We cannot put up with a new method of policing being imposed, changing a system that has existed for more than 160 years, without giving the people affected a say through the ballot box.

There is another flaw. I should like to put this in as a late bid in the consultation process. I am aware of the Government's proposals and I expect the Minister to reply that he has consulted the districts and there will be one representative from those areas on the new police committee. However, in the debate the Friday before last on the policing of London, the Home Secretary said—I hope that the Minister is listening to this, because it is an important point—that there would be a police committee of 25. The Green Paper says that it will be a committee of 21. I presume that the Home Secretary has the last word, so let us assume that there will be a committee of 25. One representative in 25 to speak for more than 500,000 people is not enough.

The representation of Scotland and Wales in this House has established the principle of minorities being over-represented. The number of people living outside the Greater London authority area is 6.6 per cent. of the number living inside. To save hon. Members getting out their calculators, I can tell them that that should equate to 1.65 members on the police committee.

I put it to the Minister that there should be at least two representatives from those areas on the police committee. I suggest that one of those should represent the larger area, which is in Surrey, and that the other one should represent the districts in Essex and Hertfordshire. That would be fair and democratic. I realise that if the Minister accepted the idea, he would be conceding that there was someone fighting for his or her own patch, which he has not been too happy about before. I have tabled the amendment in a constructive spirit, however, and I hope that the Minister will consider the points raised seriously

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As Spelthorne is mentioned in the amendment, I feel that it is necessary to explain the local point of view. I am glad, for reasons that will become clear in a moment, that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) said that his was a probing amendment.

On this issue at least, I am more than happy to take the Government at their word. They have explained that they want to give local people a direct say in the affairs of the Metropolitan police; I accept that assurance in good faith. The Government say that they believe that it is right to hold a referendum of those who will be affected by the proposed changes; I cannot disagree with that. I do not object to either of those two expressed aims. The Bill as it stands, however, will not achieve either of those aims for my constituents. Almost all my constituents—I shall come back to the remainder later—are policed by the Metropolitan police, yet they will not be consulted about whether they want a police authority.

The amendment offers one solution to the problem. There must, indeed, be a solution and I urge the Government to find it. As my hon. Friend's amendment is a probing amendment, I am happy to support it, but it offers a solution which will not appeal to my constituents. If there is one thing that unites the overwhelming majority of my constituents, whoever they vote for, it is that they want nothing to do with London. The past 40 years have been spent fighting to stay out of the wretched place. When Middlesex was absorbed, we were the bit that managed to persuade the Government of the day to leave us out. Every time anything is suggested that somehow or other involves us with London, we smell a rat. Whoever the Member of Parliament for Spelthorne is, he or she will be here objecting.

We have every reason to be suspicious of the Bill and of the solution being proposed in the amendment. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South said that the amendment concerned some areas of the home counties and of Surrey. In our minds, we are still Middlesex and not Surrey. If there are to be extra places on the new authority, Middlesex will stake its claim and will not want to be lumped in with Surrey.

On Second Reading, I obtained an assurance from the Minister that he had no intention of tinkering with the Greater London boundaries. I should be grateful if he would say that again tonight, tomorrow and the day after because I have every intention of holding him to that promise permanently. I hope that he does not see it as a convenient way in which to shut me up for a moment. My constituents are implacably opposed to the alteration of the boundaries as a way in which to solve the anomaly.

I believe that there are only two possible ways forward. We could, as suggested in the amendment, involve my constituents in the referendum so that we could be consulted in accordance with the Government's aims. I suspect, however, that even if the Government were minded to agree to that, they would be forced to admit that they had to have a separate question because the last thing that my constituents want is to be consulted on anything other than policing. If the Government will not have two questions on the referendum paper, they are unlikely to be prepared to have three, one of which would be a special question for Spelthorne. That solution would not commend itself to the Government.

There are other issues, such as the powers of the authority and its structure, but those are matters best left for the main Bill. I give notice that I shall want to discuss what the authority will do vis-a-vis my constituency, but I shall leave the matter for tonight.

The only other solution that I can see—I am not necessarily commending it to the Minister—is to review the boundaries of the Metropolitan police area. On Second Reading, the Minister made it clear that he had no plans to review the boundaries at the moment. I found that comment both reassuring and disconcerting. When does "at the moment" cease?

There is a precedent. When the local government boundaries were changed in the former Middlesex, Surrey and Berkshire areas, part of a village that I represent— part of the village of Colnbrook—was moved into Slough. The result was that that part of my constituency was moved into the Thames Valley police area, so there is a precedent for looking at the boundaries of the Metropolitan police district.

I ask the Minister to consider that possibility. I am not sure that it would be wholly popular with all my constituents, but it does offer a solution to a genuine problem. We have to find a solution. We cannot have people in London being consulted about the policing of areas outside London when the local people are not to be consulted.

The amendment is a probing one. I hope that it is not pressed to a Division because that would give me some difficulty. I believe, however, that the spirit of the amendment is absolutely right. I urge the Minister to think again and I hope that he will agree to do so. I hope that at some stage, having thought about the matter, he will tell us what his conclusions are.

Like the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), I believe that the amendment raises the right questions but comes up with the wrong answer. The hon. Gentleman probably came up with the right solution, which is that the county areas should be removed from the Metropolitan police district and allowed to join the county police forces with which they have more characteristics in common. That seems an admirably sensible solution. It is clearly not an easy solution because it would involve unscrambling management structures and some major reorganisation within the Metropolitan police. Discussions and negotiations would have to be entered into. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion, however, seems sensible.

I hope that the Minister, in replying, will take into account the fact that there is another boundary anomaly that may have been overlooked. I am referring not to the far-flung suburbs, but to the heart of London. There will be two police authorities, one for the Metropolitan police and the other for the City of London police. That will be a continuing anomaly and I believe that it would make a great deal of sense for the police authority for Greater London to cover the two police forces. There is no justification for having a separate structure for the City of London police.

In broad terms, we welcome the substance of the Government's approach to the creation of an elected police authority, which is a big step forward. We are aware that there are different ways in which to do that. One way, which I believe the Government envisage, is to create a police authority on provincial English lines. That would be very welcome. The other way is the American city model, which is mayor-dominated. I intervened in the debate on the Metropolitan police 10 days ago, and the Home Secretary reassured us that the American model was not envisaged—that the Government envisaged a police authority in which the Greater London authority would be the dominant body and that the mayor would not interfere with operational decisions. That reassurance should go a long way to removing the fears that people may have about the new structure.

We have had a short and interesting debate about the referendum franchise. I do not accept that the franchise should be extended, as proposed by the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway), to residents of districts that lie outside Greater London even though, in certain instances, policing in those areas may be the responsibility of the Metropolitan police.

It is right and proper that London residents should vote on proposals about the way in which London is governed, and the Bill provides for that. Policing is just one of the proposed functions of the Greater London authority. There are others. For example, London's transport will be one of the major responsibilities of the new authority. As the hon. Gentleman knows only too well, the London Underground network goes beyond the Greater London boundary to Amersham, Chesham, Chalfont and other parts of Buckinghamshire, for example. However, the amendment does not seek to allow residents of those areas the right to vote because they might be affected by decisions taken in respect of London's transport. Therefore, the amendment is partial in that it relates to only one function of the Greater London authority and not to its overall responsibility.

I do not agree that the residents of Elmbridge or Reigate and Banstead should influence the way in which the people of London are governed. That seems a curious proposition. What the Government are proposing would not disadvantage the people in the areas to which the amendment refers. Our proposal would bring the Metropolitan police closer in practice to police forces and police authorities elsewhere in the country.

At the moment, residents of Spelthorne, Hertsmere and other areas mentioned in the amendment have no say in the way in which they are policed. The Home Secretary is a police authority and local authorities are not represented on the Metropolitan police committee. The Government propose a democratically elected police authority that will include representatives of London local authorities. We propose in the consultation paper that there should also be representation for the outer London boroughs—I should say the out-of-London boroughs—that are served by the Metropolitan police.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary commented on the issue on 14 November during a debate on the policing of London. The hon. Member for Croydon, South referred to his remarks and implied that he had suggested that there would be a police authority of 25 members. That is not the case. I quote from Hansard
"We propose a police authority of 21 members, and it is proportionate to have one representative from the outer areas … We remain open to representations about the exact balance of elected members. However, as we have found in other areas—for example, in the Thames Valley, which combines three counties—there are always pressures to increase the total number of members. That desire must be balanced against the need to create a body that is small enough to work efficiently and effectively."—[Official Report, 14 November 1997; Vol. 300, c. 1141.]
That is the Government's position. We have not decided; we have consulted. We have heard the representations that were made in response to the consultation paper and I have heard the speeches this evening. No decisions have yet been taken, but we have to balance the competing claims of areas that may want representation with the need to keep the authority to a businesslike size.

The hon. Member for Croydon, South suggested that there should be one representative from the south and one from the north so that they could each fight for their own patch. However, the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) clearly wanted to have nothing to do with that arrangement. I should also remind the hon. Member for Croydon, South that the north includes parts of Hertsmere, Broxbourne and Epping Forest—three separate authorities. How could each of them fight for their own patch? In the south there are Elmbridge, Epsom and Ewell, and Reigate and Banstead, so any representative would have to cover a number of different areas.

I thank the Minister for making a magnificent case for having five extra members. Does he not consider that he has just done exactly that?

The hon. Gentleman cannot have been listening when I quoted my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on the need to keep the body to a reasonable and businesslike size and not to allow it to be enlarged unreasonably.

As I am sure the hon. Member for Croydon, South is aware, the Metropolitan police operational area does not extend across all the districts that he has identified. That reduces the justification for his proposals and makes them far less practicable. I am sure that even the hon. Gentleman would not wish to suggest that the referendum franchise should be extended to cover people who have no interest whatever in the outcome, but that would be the implication of his proposals. The amendment is impracticable and in many ways undesirable.

The hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) referred to the City of London police. I can assure him that because the amendment and clause 2 refer to the right to vote in a referendum, residents in the City will be entitled to vote. Obviously, wider issues about policing in the City are a separate matter and are not within the remit of the clause.

The amendment is ill-conceived and impracticable and I urge the hon. Member for Croydon, South to withdraw it.

The amendment may be impracticable, but it is not ill-conceived. Although everyone seems to relish shredding my amateur drafting, an important point has been made. I welcome the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), who accepted the spirit of the amendment and agreed with the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), who said that the solution may be to take the police out of the Metropolitan area. I did not realise that that was Liberal Democrat policy, but I was grateful for the hon. Gentleman's contribution.

7.15 pm

The Minister used as an illustration the fact that Chesham and Amersham would be affected by some of the proposals in the Green Paper, but were not being consulted. However, his argument about consultation and influence cuts both ways. As the Minister is aware, there is virtually no underground in south London—all the trains run overground—and local authorities have absolutely no say in the operation of the railways in Greater London.

The Minister missed the fundamental point of the amendment when he said that people in the five districts affected have no say in the way in which they are policed. That is not the point. We are saying that they have no say in the change in the way in which they are policed. The Minister quoted the Home Secretary in the debate a week last Friday. I suspect that the Home Secretary diligently rechecked his notes and corrected his speech in Hansard, but if the Minister would care to check the tape, he will find the Home Secretary did say that there would be 25 members of the police authority. I remember it because I was so struck by the difference between the two figures. I would not want to mislead the House, but I accept that the Home Secretary has perhaps changed his mind and the figure is 21.

The Minister also pointed out that if there were two representatives on the body, the boroughs in the north and the south would be fighting for the right to nomination. Under the Government's proposals, the five districts all over London will be fighting for the nomination so at least my amendment would go some way towards resolving the issue.

As I said at the outset, it is a probing amendment and we shall return to the point it raised when the substantive Bill is debated in a year's time. Under the circumstances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

I wish to raise an issue concerning access to voting in the referendum that will affect people living in Greater London who wish to participate and cast a vote expressing their opinion about the future government of London. I refer to the many disabled people who live in London, and I have a few questions for the Minister.

My first question concerns the publication of the White Paper. I welcome the fact that a summary will be circulated to every household, but will there be accessible versions of that summary in Braille, large print and audio format to make it available to more people? It is a relatively small step which would send an important signal to disabled people in London that the Government wish to make sure that they have a chance to express their views and understand the case that the Government are making for changes in London's government.

I want to ask a couple of questions about voting. Will people who are unable—as they often are in respect of other elections—to cast their vote in person, due to sickness, disability or holidays, be able to cast a postal vote so that they can express their view on the future government of London?

More important, the referendum gives the Government a golden opportunity to innovate and experiment with the provision of access for blind and partially sighted people. The referendum provides a controlled opportunity to ensure that such people are able to attend a polling station and vote unaided. At the moment, all too often—as was evidenced in the recent general election—blind and partially sighted people who vote in person have to go through the indignity of expressing their voting intention to someone else and having it marked on the ballot paper for them.

It may be of interest to hon. Members that I am promoting a private Member's Bill, the Elections (Visually Impaired Voters) Bill, which is due to have its Second Reading on 13 February. That will be considered too late to have an effect on this Bill. I hope that when the Government have reflected on what I have said, they will take the opportunity in another place to table amendments to allow the law to be changed, so that returning officers can use large print in polling stations to enable people to choose unaided whether to vote yes or no. I hope that the Government will reflect on the possibility of experimenting with Braille templates, given the simple question to which they are passionately committed.

Such measures would ensure that the outcome of the referendum—even if we do not agree with it—is at least inclusive. I hope that the Government will consider wording to ensure that there is no doubt in the minds of returning officers when the process is set up across London. I will be very interested to hear whether Ministers are prepared to take such measures to ensure that London's disabled people can participate fully in the debate.

I am delighted that the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) has raised an issue which is clearly of particular concern to him and his party. As I am sure he is aware, the issue is also a very high priority for the Government. The Green Paper was made available, as I am sure he is also aware, in eight languages other than English.

The hon. Member raised a point to do with people who are visually impaired. The proposals will be published not only in Braille but in large print, and will be available on cassette. It is our intention to ensure that the summary of the White Paper is available in similar formats.

The hon. Member asked whether postal votes will be available. I reassure him again that, yes, they will. We shall make particular efforts to ensure that everyone is aware of their rights in the referendum.

The hon. Member raised some very interesting points about what he would like to be in the Bill. It is certainly our intention to examine those proposals. It would be worth examining them and putting them in the White Paper. The Government are clear that, when we speak about equality, we genuinely mean it. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, we have already taken many steps to forward the equality of people with disabilities— whatever they may be. He is right to say that there can be no area more important to people with disabilities than equality in exercising what I would regard as one of their most precious possessions: the franchise.

Clause 2 defines the classes of person entitled to vote in the referendum. They will include those entitled to vote at a local government election in any London borough and those entitled to vote as residents at a ward election in the City of London. It is the usual practice for local elections that the eligibility requirement should be that of residency. We intend to follow that practice in the referendum.

It is a clearly established principle that the entitlement to vote in a referendum is also derived from residency. That principle was reaffirmed in the referendums earlier in the year in Scotland and Wales. We intend that the GLA should be elected by London residents. That was made clear in the Green Paper. It makes sense that people eligible to vote in the election of the GLA should be the ones who decide whether it should be established.

On the issue concerning wards of the City of London, I declare an interest. As a member of a set of chambers in the Temple, I have a vote. All members of chambers in the Inner Temple and the Middle Temple are on the electoral roll of the City—even though, technically, the Temple is not in the City, which is a double nonsense.

I am not trying to be provocative, but I must point out the anomaly. I have always felt embarrassed that such a tradition continues. People who have votes in wards of the City, which include the Temple outside the City, are regarded as electors for all London purposes. I am in favour of the principle enunciated by the Minister that franchise is based on residency. Clearly, votes from the Temple are not residential—although one or two people live there, the votes are generally business votes.

I hope that at some stage—it may not be possible during the passage of this Bill—we get to grips with such an anomaly, since it means that there are two sorts of voter in the same referendum. There are people who vote because they live in London—the Minister for London and Construction, the Minister for Transport in London and I have our homes in London, and that is where we vote—and people who vote simply because they work in London. We clearly need to address that.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) for raising that point. I reassure him that the only criterion that will allow someone to vote in the referendum is that of residency. We have been in very close consultation with the City of London corporation to ensure that the franchise for the referendum is based on fair, uniform entitlements across the City and the 32 boroughs.

The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said that he had a right to vote because he is a member of chambers. It is very clear that the only entitlement to vote in the referendum—both in the wards of the City and across 32 boroughs—is through residency.

I am very grateful to the Minister. She has taken my point. The Government have clearly been seized of it. I am grateful that, in this context at least, the anomaly has been resolved. We shall clearly have to return to the issue in other contexts.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.