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Local Government Review: Supplementary

Volume 404: debated on Wednesday 30 April 2003

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Lords amendment: No. 24.

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

With this it will be convenient to consider Lords amendments Nos. 25 to 33.

The amendments are largely a consequence of giving people a say in the shape of unitary local government in regions that opt for an elected regional assembly but that presently have two-tier local government. We have already debated the principles underlying that. The Lords amendments also alter the basis on which the boundary committee conducts local government reviews; a response to concerns expressed in both Houses during the Bill's passage.

Amendment No. 25 would allow the boundary committee to consider the boundaries of existing unitary authorities where it makes sense to do so. The Government maintain the view that there is no need for a general review of unitary boundaries; an important point that I want to stress. The impact of the reviews should be limited, but we accept that, in some circumstances, the boundaries of existing unitary councils might need to be expanded to take in parts of an adjoining two-tier area.

Amendments Nos. 24 and 27 make necessary changes to the local government review process to ensure that the Government can allow voters to consider different options for unitary local government in those parts of a region voting on an elected regional assembly where there is currently a two-tier local government system. The boundary committee will now have to make recommendations for at least two options for each county area. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions mentioned earlier, if county boundaries are crossed, the referendum would apply to the combined areas of both counties. All options must be assessed against the same criteria; first, on the assumption that an elected regional assembly will be created and, secondly, with regard to the need to reflect the interests and identities of local communities and to secure effective and convenient local government.

Amendments Nos. 26, 28, 29 and 30 are minor technical adjustments to the Bill to facilitate the changes that I have described. Amendments Nos. 31 to 33 provide the Secretary of State with greater discretion to require the electoral commission, under part 3 of the Bill, to advise on electoral matters on the basis of different scenarios for local government restructuring. The changes are necessary because of what might arise when local government referendums take place in parallel with regional referendums. Amendment No. 32 gives the Secretary of State discretion to require that the Electoral Commission give advice on a specified number of electoral options when issues are at hand. Amendment No. 33 is a contingency provision for the remote circumstances in which we might need to vary an electoral direction outside the two-year period within which the Secretary of State must issue an order for an electoral provision following a vote in favour of the establishment of an elected regional assembly. I hope that the House will support the amendments.

4.45 pm

Time is short, so I shall focus only on amendments Nos. 31 and 32. Although the Under-Secretary presented them as consequential on the introduction of the multi-option local authority restructuring, they raise some questions. The amendments would give the Secretary of State the ability to direct the Electoral Commission to present a specified number of alternative ways of dividing up a regional assembly area for the purposes of elections. As the Bill stands, that exercise will not take place until after a referendum had been held. The Under-Secretary is not right to say that because of the possibility of adopting one of several local authority structures, it is therefore necessary to ask the Electoral Commission to come up with more than one solution.

I was intrigued by the similarity between what is being proposed with what was agreed in the other place about the local authority review. My principal question to the Under-Secretary is whether the Government intend to use a referendum to allow the inhabitants of a region that had opted for an elected regional assembly to choose between different alternative arrangements for the division of the region into electoral areas. The Electoral Commission could be directed to produce two or perhaps more solutions. Is that what the Government have in mind?

No, the Government do not have such thoughts in mind, although enthusiasm for extra referendums is clearly affecting the hon. Gentleman's thinking. A third referendum was not something that the Government intended. Perhaps I did not explain the purposes of Lords amendments Nos. 31 and 32 clearly. The second, local government, referendum will be significant because when the Electoral Commission draws up the constituency boundaries for an assembly, it may change its recommendations, depending on the options available in respect of local government reorganisation. That was the point that I sought to make. I hope that that is helpful and that the amendments will be accepted.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 25 to 35 agreed to.