House again in Committee on Clause 2.
Clause 2 agreed to.
Clause 3 [Invitations, directions and proposals: supplementary]:
[Amendments Nos. 14 and 15 not moved.]
15A: Clause 3, page 3, line 18, at end insert—
“(c) the potential impact on the membership of any National Park Authority affected or on the Broads Authority.”
The noble Baroness said: This amendment and Amendments Nos. 22A and 42A relate to the special status held by national parks—an arrangement developed carefully over recent decades. Currently, the membership of national park authorities is made up of representatives from all the local authorities in the national park area, including parish councils, along with people appointed by the Secretary of State. This reflects the fact that national parks are a treasure of national significance, yet are places where people have to live and work.
The English National Park Authorities Association has raised concerns about unitary proposals, specifically about how the current balance of the membership of national park authorities will be affected by the creation of unitary councils in their areas. The association is concerned that the creation of unitary councils will give the local authority a more dominant position within the national park authority. Without commenting on whether I think that that is a good or bad thing, I tabled the amendment to give the Minister a chance to, I hope, reassure national park authorities that the department is aware of this issue, particularly because the authorities’ normal dealings would be with Defra and it is not unknown for one department not to talk to another. I beg to move.
I am delighted to say that I have never come across the situation of departments not talking to each other. In this instance, not only are we talking constantly, but I can assure the noble Baroness that we absolutely understand these concerns over the independence of the national parks. As I am sure the noble Baroness knows, on 19 June in the other place, my honourable friend the former Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced that, where the creation of a unitary authority would result in that authority appointing more than eight members to a national park authority, the Government would review the membership arrangements with a view to reducing the number of local authority appointees.
I am absolutely at one with the noble Baroness about the need to control the impact of unitary authorities on the membership both of the national park authorities and the Broads Authority. I hope that I can persuade her that we do not need the amendments, because they are unnecessary and because they would not have the effect that she seeks. Amendment No 15A would require an authority, in framing a unitary proposal, to have regard to any guidance that the Secretary of State had issued about the potential impact of the proposal on a national park authority or the Broads Authority. It is not for the local authority to consider matters; the Government are responsible for the membership arrangements in the national parks and the Broads.
I refer the noble Baroness to the Written Statement of 19 June. The Minister went through all the actions that he would want to take in order to ensure the independence of the authority:
“I have decided that where unitary local government might lead to a single local authority appointing eight or more members on to a national park authority, I shall want to take action in advance to ensure the independence of that authority. If such circumstances arise, I intend to review the membership of each affected national park authority with a view to reducing the number of its local authority appointees.
Where I conclude that it is indeed appropriate to reduce the number of principal local authority seats on any national park authority, I shall also want to reflect on whether that should be allowed to feed through into a smaller overall size of authority or whether the number of ‘other’ seats—for example, those appointed by DEFRA—should be expanded so as to maintain the same overall size.
If I do conclude that it would be appropriate to add some extra seats within the ‘other’ category—for example, those appointed by DEFRA—I would envisage using those new seats to recruit particular qualities that are either under-represented at present or might become so”.—[Official Report, Commons, 19/6/07; col. 83WS.]
The Minister has certainly thought through the potential impact and how we might safeguard the parks’ independence. I am very happy to send the noble Baroness a copy of the Written Ministerial Statement.
Amendment No. 22A, as drafted, would require the Secretary of State to be satisfied that appropriate measures were in place before she determined to implement a unitary proposal. I understand what the noble Baroness wants to achieve, but she has created a Catch-22 situation. The amendment would not allow us to decide to implement a proposal until we had put new membership arrangements in place. We cannot do that until we make the order to create the unitary authority et cetera.
Amendment No. 42A would provide the Secretary of State with the power to make an order for the membership arrangements in the national park authorities or the Broads Authority. That is covered by the Bill in Clause 11(4)(e), which allows us to provide for the membership of any public body, including the national park authorities and the Broads Authority. I hope that this reassures the noble Baroness that we are absolutely serious about maintaining the very precious independence of the national park authorities and the Broads Authority. The Bill allows us to do that.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that full explanation. I am sure that it will reassure the National Park Authorities Association. It would be helpful if Defra could begin the process of evaluating the effect on the national park authorities sooner rather than later, given that there are a limited number of local authorities now in contention for unitary status. Of those, very few will have national parks contained within them. It would be better for good governance if these proposals were developed before the changeover, so that there is no battle that results in a hiatus in governance. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
16: Clause 3, page 3, line 18, at end insert—
“( ) The Secretary of State shall give guidance as to the consultations of residents, businesses, voluntary and statutory organisations and others to be undertaken by the principal authorities concerned and by him.”
The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 16 is in a group that contains two government amendments. Two of my further amendments in this group amend the government amendments. I will speak to them all together. The Minister will anticipate what I intend to say.
Amendment No. 16 provides for the Secretary of State to give guidance on who should be consulted. It is not a particularly elegant amendment, but it is there because I could not believe that I had reached this point in my reading of the Bill without seeing a reference to consultation. It might be implicit in earlier parts of the Bill, but it is not spelt out or required. If I use the term “retrospective”, the Minister will understand that I do not use it in a technical sense, but this amendment illustrates retrospectively, in lay terms, the very odd situation that we find ourselves in.
The amendment raises not just the need for consultation. It may be that it is not required because the process is done and close to dusted, although we have heard that there is the prospect of some sort of resurrection or continuation. It also raises the issue of quality of information and sometimes misinformation—and sometimes, no doubt, information characterised as misinformation—or indeed the completeness of information. The amendment may now be irrelevant, given the timing, but the principle is worth airing.
Government Amendment No. 29 requires the Secretary of State, under Clause 7, to go to,
“such other persons as he considers appropriate”.
I have sought to reinstate the reference to persons whom he believes to have an interest, in order to understand who is appropriate within this provision. It would have seemed to me on a “new reader, start here” basis that “persons who have an interest” would be appropriate. However, the more that I thought about it, the less clear I was which was the wider and which the narrower of the two terms.
Amendment No. 31 raises the issue of who is a person for this purpose. I suspect that we will be told that it has a very wide definition, but I would like to have that confirmation. Amendment No. 52 concerns the timing of formal consultation and local debate, providing that the Secretary of State—we have now jumped to Clause 21, but the issues are similar—will take full account of representations made at any time before the commencement of the relevant provisions.
That has come about because we have been contacted by local authority members in areas which are in contention—if I go on using that term, at least everyone will know what I mean—where the deadline for responses is around the middle or towards the end of June. Authorities in the relevant areas were known to be submitting supplementary information and the stakeholders, or persons interested, felt the need to be reassured that they would have the opportunity to comment on or rebut any of the materials included in that supplementary presentation. I understand that they asked the department what its position would be on that, but that, at that time, they had not had a response.
It is important that the process commands confidence. We may have shown a lack of confidence today, but I hope that at the end of the process there will be confidence in what has happened. It is important that those who are assessing the bids are able to take account of everything that is presented to them. I beg to move.
I have tabled Amendments Nos. 20A and 25 in this group, which both concern consultation, or the lack of consultation time in the Bill and the lack of detail about who is to be consulted. There are a few stakeholders here and there and one or two others, but the local electorate seem to have been entirely left out.
Amendment No. 25 would extend the time within which it is possible to make representations to the Secretary of State following a proposal by the Boundary Commission. I regret that I have not seen the guidance on the clause that was promised to my honourable friend Robert Syms in another place. I do not know whether it has not been issued or whether it just has not come my way. If it has been issued, I should be extremely grateful if it was placed in the Library for reference between now and Report. I am sure that that was overlooked, if it has been issued, but it would be helpful to have it.
The current provision for a four-week period in which to make representations following a Boundary Commission report is simply not enough for councils and individuals to galvanise views and put together a convincing case. Even the two months that I propose in Amendment No. 25 would provide only just enough time to carry out a consultation in response to the proposals. I have proposed a shorter time than I would otherwise as a conciliatory gesture, but I am not sure whether it will be accepted. I hope that the Government can meet us on this because it is important not only for the interests of those who want a fair amount of time to make representations, but so that, in this whole process, the Secretary of State listens, and is seen to listen, and does not simply shut out dissenting voices through the use of unforgiving deadlines.
The Government have a bit of form on this. The date of publication of the White Paper setting out the broad basis of structural change—omitting some detail, as we know—and the 25 January deadline for the submission of bids strangled the consultation process. Indeed, the strangulation continues in the government amendments. Amendments Nos. 27 and 29 have, I fear, provoked great anxiety among councils. The effect of the amendments seems to be that the Government will assign to themselves the right not to consult the public—in effect, they give the Government the means to make the decision on whatever grounds of consultation they might choose. I reiterate that the Bill and the Government’s handling of it are in stark contrast to the message that the Government are sending out that they take into account the views of communities and seek to empower them through their proposals.
We have received representations from a number of parties going through what is becoming a messy restructuring process. As the Minister knows, there is already a judicial review on consultation. I have no doubt that that will be heard before Report, so we will have the benefit of it after the Recess. One party told me that the consultation process so far has been nothing more than talking to 44 citizens— presumably, some sort of residents’ panel—75 interviews and a negative market research exercise. I am astonished that with these deep objections to the consultation procedures the Government are apparently seeking further to restrict communication between the Executive and the electorate. The electorate need to be involved in those decisions. This matters to them. After all, they are the people who are affected by any change to local government and it is paramount that they should be consulted properly.
I am grateful to Members of the Committee for addressing their amendments in the way that they have. I want to take them through the argument for the government amendments, Amendments Nos. 27 and 29, and address the various amendments tabled alongside them.
The whole group of amendments deals in various ways with processes of consultation. I am certainly happy to respond to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, by clarifying our intention in our amendments, which will not restrict consultation in any perverse way, but which will align the consultation processes of the Bill and the invitation. Amendments Nos. 27 and 29 are intended to ensure that the Secretary of State is required to consult those whose views she needs to know to fulfil her role in the restructuring process, but does not duplicate the extensive public consultations that councils themselves will be carrying out.
Amendments Nos. 16, 28, 28A, 30, 31 and 52, which have been tabled by opposition Members of the Committee, are also intended to develop in more detail the consultation requirement. Amendment No. 20A would allow a council when responding to an invitation to make a proposal reflecting consultation with its electorate, as the noble Baroness said. Finally, Amendment No. 25 would modify the period for representations to be made about a unitary proposal which the Boundary Committee has made as an alternative to the proposal put forward by a local authority.
I fully understand the motives that inspire the amendments, and I hope I can persuade the Committee that they are more than met by the restructuring processes that we are establishing. In brief, we are bringing our amendments forward to ensure that the Bill and the process which we have followed throughout the invitation to local authorities to come forward with plans for restructuring are fully aligned with each other and with the principles of devolution itself.
The amendment would replace the words in Clause 7(3)(b) with,
“such other persons as he considers appropriate”.
The significance of the change is, quite simply, to correct the drafting—I have to hold my hands up to that need—so that the clause does not mean that the Secretary of State herself is required to impose a form of central general consultation on local areas, at a later stage of deliberation, above and beyond that which has already been undertaken earlier in the process, rightly, by the local authorities concerned. The proposed changes are consistent with the intention and the process of restructuring by invitation, which has been welcomed by local authorities.
Amendments Nos. 28 and 30 seek to restore the detail of the consultation requirement. They both use the same wording as in the present text of the Bill, which is inappropriate and redundant, because in any administrative process the Secretary of State must necessarily have regard to representations made to her by any person, whether or not she has consulted that person.
I will address the process that we have already determined in the invitation. The whole process was to enable local authorities to decide whether to seek unitary status. One of the key tests for any such proposal was that it must have support from a range of key partners, stakeholders and service users or citizens—the electorate. That was a deliberate form of words, because we wanted a formative process of consultation. We wanted people to be part of the process of deciding—to ensure that the people most affected, such as the local partners and key agencies, could respond and contribute to the proposals, and that local authorities should seek the views of local people in whatever way was thought best. The key consultees, as they have emerged in the process and we have got to know, have been primary care trusts, strategic health authorities, police authorities, chambers of commerce, learning and skills councils, universities and so on. Within that notion of broad support is the principle that local authorities have got to show, in whatever way they think has been most effective, that they have involved local people. That is the most effective way to engage local people and to obtain well informed views of those affected.
The variety of ways adopted by local councils in obtaining views is very interesting—citizen juries, opinion polls, local referendums in some cases and citizens’ panels. I am not making relative judgments on which are effective. In North Yorkshire, for example, the county council commissioned a citizens’ panel survey—2,500 people took part—and three focus groups. Members and officers of the council attended approximately 250 parish and town council meetings. Three newsletters were sent out and there were 10 meetings with the VCS across the county. Key stakeholders, such as the chamber of commerce, received information through the LSP. The district council commissioned a MORI poll, directly communicated with the community—for example, council tenants—and contributed to newspaper articles. That is one example which is very typical of what has happened. I have other examples, but I will not go through them, unless noble Lords would like me to. When we come to the definition of “person” in the noble Baroness’s amendments, a person includes a body by means of the Interpretation Act 1978—that means real people, but also organisations and companies.
I have described what councils have done, some of which was before the proposals were submitted in January. It was in a way a pre-consultation process, which provided key evidence about how the proposals stacked up against the support criteria. Councils have done more, following the decision in March as to which proposals on the information that we had then met the criteria. Councils have done that to provide more evidence.
The Secretary of State’s consultation, which Clause 7 refers to and is the process in the current round of restructuring that ended on 22 June, had a very specific purpose. That purpose was to help her satisfy herself—by seeking the views of those who are in a position to give an informed judgment—that the evidence available showed that the proposals met the criteria. It was not a process for her to duplicate—almost certainly less effectively—what councils had already done in gathering evidence. Clause 7 provides for the consultation period—ending on 22 June—for the Secretary of State to satisfy herself that the proposals meet the criteria. As part of that, a consultation paper was issued and sent to stakeholders, inviting consultation responses. It was put on the website and was open for anyone to respond to. Gratifyingly, we had almost 60,000 responses; some were in the nature of campaigns, but many were individual responses. At this very moment the Secretary of State is, as it were, wading through the consultation responses, to see how people have responded.
It is important to be clear because, although there would be some additional decision-making through popular referendums or suchlike, I want to stress that the amendments were never intended at this stage to impose from above on the local authorities some requirement for a universal public consultation. It is not intended by the Secretary of State to parachute in with a consultation that seeks to second guess the views and decisions of the democratic councils. The Bill recognises this, because it provides that when all councils are in agreement, no consultation is necessary, although the Secretary of State may if she wishes consult. In the last 12 weeks—since we announced the 16 proposals—the Secretary of State has been consulting with partners and stakeholders, considering the stakeholders’ consultation and then, at the end of July, she will make those decisions.
Amendment No. 16, the call for guidance, would contradict some of that process. It would remove the power of local authorities to decide for themselves. Amendment No. 20A does nothing that a council cannot and does not do already—having regard to the electorate when making a proposal. Amendment No. 16, the notion of central guidance, is inimical to the spirit of the Bill. Amendment No. 20A would mean that the Secretary of State must consult every member of the electorate before implementing proposals. None of that is necessary or, indeed, compatible with the very thorough process that we put in place.
Before going back to my own amendments, I will turn briefly to Amendment No. 52, which also would require of the Secretary of State to take full account of representations made at any time prior to the commencement. We are doing that, and I hope that what I have said reassures noble Lords.
Let us turn back to the Government’s amendments about why we have to correct the Bill. Discussions around judicial review also highlighted that the consultation provisions in the Bill are drawn too wide, by proposing a consultation process that involves any other person believed to have an interest. That would add nothing but delay to a process that we have tried to make as swift and precise as possible, but we need to make the change, because it is possible that a court would be likely to require such a wider consultation than is appropriate or necessary. That would require the department to impose a consultation aimed directly at every citizen, taxpayer, council tax payer, business, voluntary group and so on, or consultations through advertisements. We have placed our trust in local authorities and believe that that would duplicate what has been done.
Finally, I come to the timescale for the Boundary Committee and Amendment No. 25. Let me make it clear that the four-week opportunity is at the end of a process that itself provides for sufficient consultation and engagement. I will explain. Where the Boundary Committee is minded to make an alternative proposal, it must publish a draft. That is the principal opportunity for people to comment—it is provided through a requirement on the committee to ensure that those who have an interest are informed of the draft proposal and the deadline. As a matter of course, the Boundary Committee follows the Cabinet Office guidance on consulting for a minimum of 12 weeks. The Bill follows the precedent in the Local Government Act 1992 and allows the independent Boundary Committee to set a window for the receipt of recommendations that it considers appropriate; the Boundary Committee has then to take account of those representations.
Where the Boundary Committee subsequently makes a proposal to the Secretary of State, we are providing a further opportunity—an additional one—hence the four weeks’ window. The Boundary Committee has to inform anyone who has made representations that it has made a proposal, and has to inform those people that they can go directly to the Secretary of State in that four-week period. Unless revised, that will be four weeks from the date set by the Secretary of State for advice from the committee. Those two processes should provide enough opportunity for people to make sufficient representation to ensure that their voices have been heard. I hope that noble Lords will be able to withdraw their amendments.
Can the Minister clarify the position on the government amendments? In my own area of Suffolk, in the neighbouring county authority in Norfolk and, for example, in Devon, each county town—also, by a large margin, the largest town in the county—has a unitary proposal which would have a profound impact on the rest of the county, even though the rest of the county could, in the eyes of some, not be said to have a direct interest. Would the Government consider an inhabitant of a part of Suffolk not included in the unitary proposal to have an interest if they felt that their services were affected by the county town being removed from the county and having unitary status?
Please forgive me for being late. I have come straight from the local government conference in Birmingham, where the feeling on reorganisation is extremely high.
The Minister said that there has not been a widespread referendum across all households because the Government have asked for options from councils. But I well remember, in the 1993-96 reorganisation, Professor Grant from the Local Government Commission coming down and having a meeting of all council leaders in my own county of Kent, and saying that he invited them to come forward with their preferred options for the county—maybe pairs of district councils. Even in that organisation, councils came together and made proposals. Yet, in that reorganisation, the independent commission went out with a leaflet to every household. The importance of that was that everyone saw it to be independent and fair.
It was not just one district council within a shire doing that; it was done within the whole area under review. As I say, that was seen to be independent and fair. I cannot understand why the Government say that we cannot do that on this occasion.
On the point of the noble Baroness, I understand that if anybody feels that they are going to be affected by a reorganisation, irrespective of whether they are within the specific boundaries, they are able to respond. No one is excluded from that process. Unless I am wrong, and I will certainly correct it if I am, that is my interpretation.
On what the noble Lord said, it is interesting that local authorities have taken many different routes to ascertain the views of their local people. I cited North Yorkshire, but Cornwall, for example, commissioned a MORI poll of over 1,000 residents. North Cornwall District Council sent a survey to 6,000 households. There has been a serious attempt by many local authorities to drill down into what local people feel about what is proposed.
On this amendment, we have been debating the Secretary of State’s role in Clause 7 and whether she should have any power to, as I have put it, parachute into the process and demand yet another review. That would undermine the integrity of what the local authorities have done at these early stages. Through the stakeholder consultation, the Secretary of State has been soliciting responses from individuals. We try really hard to collect the voices and ensure that the process has been genuinely informative so that stakeholders can have a role in the iterative process of making the proposal work. There is a big difference between the Boundary Commission making a proposal and one from a council which is democratically accountable, a point which the noble Baroness was making.
The Minister has said,
“such other persons as he considers appropriate”.
In discussions on this, the Minster has pointed to MORI polls, citizens’ juries and other odd ways of testing out a limited number of people’s views. I know that MORI polls are meant to give you a pretty good idea of what the world believes, but the only way of finding out what people believe is to ask them. The only way of asking them is to ensure that everybody in the electorate is asked. There are many ways that local councils consult like this and ensure that they have touched every household, so that they can be sure that they have a response.
It may not seem to matter very much to many people how the district or county councils are formed and structured, but there are an awful lot of people to whom it matters. It changes the services, and changes who delivers them. It will cause havoc for the staff and the people administering social services. This is not just a paper reorganisation, but a major reorganisation of the whole of the services. Within this, the initial discussions before January were very limited. Where the councils were putting in their original applications after the invitation, there just was not time for there to be anything other than a skirmish of a consultation. Correspondence we have had from councils involved in the invitation authorities—28 to begin with; it came down to 16 and now looks like being eight—suggests that the consultation has not been widespread.
The noble Baroness’s,
“such other persons as he considers appropriate”,
is pretty thin. You could think that you and I might be appropriate. That would be it; we could finish the consultation here and now. What is important is how wide people throw that, and how wide the Secretary of State believes that she threw it. I still believe that each member of the electorate, in whatever area is being reformed, should be consulted. It is nothing but their right to be consulted. I hear what the Minister says.
If I have understood the Minister correctly, it is very helpful that the Secretary of State takes account of representations, solicited or not and whenever made. I raised a question on representations made following 22 June, but the debate has gone more widely than that. As I read the clause, whoever is consulted, under the Government’s amendment that is not a restriction on those who may make representations and who will be heard. The Minister is nodding and shaking her head at the correct moments, so that is very helpful. I am not entirely sure of the solution to this. Whether the consultation undertaken at a local level is adequate, and whether the Secretary of State’s role in checking the adequacy of this, may be issues which will come out in the wash in the applications going forward. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendments Nos. 17 to 21 not moved.]
22: Clause 3, page 3, line 25, at end insert “or—
“(c) declining the invitation.”
The noble Lord said: This would be a simple addition to the Bill. It would allow local authorities the right to issue a straight refusal to an invitation to restructure. Unless I have missed a well hidden subsection in the depths of the Bill, such a positive power of refusal has been omitted. I am sure that the Minister can enlighten me on this issue and I look forward to her response. I beg to move.
We do not think that the amendment is necessary. By definition, any invitation can be declined; for example, no one is forced to go to a party. The whole principle of the invitation process means that a council has to respond to an invitation only if it feels that unitary structures are the right solution for its area. When we issued our invitation, we made it clear that local authorities were invited,
“if they so wish, to make a proposal for future unitary local government structures for their area’”.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said, only certain councils responded. As I have said, it is very much a devolutionary approach, which does not impose any obligation on any authority to respond. I ask the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
I thank the noble Baroness for that answer, which is not as helpful as it might have been. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendment No. 22A not moved.]
Clause 3 agreed to.
Clause 4 [Request for Boundary Committee for England’s Advice]:
[Amendment No. 23 not moved.]
Clause 4 agreed to.
Clause 5 [Boundary Committee’s powers]:
[Amendment No. 24 not moved.]
Clause 5 agreed to.
Clause 6 [Boundary Committee’s procedure]:
[Amendment No. 25 not moved.]
Clause 6 agreed to.
26: After Clause 6, insert the following new Clause—
“Referendum in case of proposals for single tier of local government
(1) In any proposals under sections 2 or 5 for a single tier of local government, the Secretary of State must hold a referendum on the proposals before taking any steps to implement them.
(2) If the result of a referendum under subsection (1) is to reject the Secretary of State’s proposals under sections 2 or 5, the Secretary of State may not implement those proposals.
(3) The Secretary of State must make regulations to specify the arrangements for any referendum required under this section.”
The noble Baroness said: This amendment moves us on in this debate on consultation because it suggests that it would be effective to have a referendum on these proposals. It would place a duty on the Secretary of State to hold a referendum before taking any steps to implement a unitary authority. I remind the Minister what the now ex-Deputy Prime Minister said on introducing unitary authorities. He said that,
“if you want to have a unitary, then you can have a ballot”.
This Government claim that the Bill is devolutionary, but, as we have seen, it is only as devolutionary as a Secretary of State will allow it to be and is controlled quite heavily from Whitehall.
Amendment No. 26 would guarantee that no community had any kind of structure of government forced on it without giving it an opportunity to vote on that. I accept that I am rather swimming upstream, but in trying to persuade a Government who willingly sign off fundamental British freedoms, we need to ensure that the people being affected have a right to add their views. Giving local electors the power to voice a preference represents a solid investment in the future of unitary councils, which is important. We, again, are getting mixed views on what happens when citizens’ juries take place and then another form of consultation takes place. The replies will be distorted and will not add up—one consultation will go one way and another consultation will go another. It would be settled by a referendum, because that is a vote of the people, which is then binding by the majority. I urge the Government to take up this amendment. I beg to move.
This takes us a little further—and a little further afield, too. Amendment No. 26 seeks to materially change our process of restructuring by requiring that a unitary proposal cannot be implemented unless there has been a local referendum for support. The arguments that we have heard for referendums and for this new clause suggest that there is still some misunderstanding about the processes that we are seeking to establish for restructuring. The amendment talks of what happens if a referendum rejects the Secretary of State’s proposals, but we need to be really clear that there is no question under the new processes of there being a proposal from the Secretary of State. Every proposal submitted comes from a democratically elected council, accountable to the local people, and that is the democratic process. It is right that local councils should be free to consult and engage in their communities in the way they believe is most appropriate. Some local authorities have already held a referendum, but it is not appropriate to impose one. Where a democratically elected council takes a decision, it should be validated in the normal way through a local election—the most significant referendum of all. In our representative democracy, it is surely up to a democratically elected council to make a decision that the electorate can always contradict at the ballot box.
I recognise that in some areas different councils with their own mandate can reach opposing positions on restructuring, but seeking to resolve such differences between councils—which, in any event, will have a different electorate—is not the right way to proceed. We should ask whose electorate would be participating in the referendum. As I have set out, the process which we are putting in place allows for councils in that position to provide evidence to the Secretary of State to support their case as part of the consultation process, and they will be tested on that. Crucially, any decision for structural change will ultimately be for Parliament to vote on through the affirmative procedure.
I was not involved in previous attempts at restructuring but noble Lords may well have been. It is significant that in the Banham reviews of the 1990s there was no question of a referendum. The previous Administration created the approach that a proposal would be made by the commission they had appointed, and, if approved, it would be implemented. That contrasts with the bottom-up approach that we seek to adopt in the Bill. I accept that the Bill also provides that the Boundary Committee, having been asked for advice on a unitary proposal made by a council, can make its own alternative proposal. A referendum in such circumstances would in truth have been asking the local electorate to arbitrate between the views of its council and those of an independent expert committee. That is not a very sensible or practical way forward.
The right way to proceed is for decisions or recommendations from the independent Electoral Commission to be subject to debate by the democratically elected Members of this House and the other place. Our approach is devolutionary; it allows local authorities to come forward with proposals to demonstrate that the criterion has been met with a broad cross-section of support. Imposing referenda on local proposals would confuse, duplicate and disrupt. I am sure that is not what local authorities or noble Lords would want. I hope that the noble Baroness can withdraw her amendment.
I thank the Minister for those not very helpful or supportive remarks. I hear what she says and I take the point about the Secretary of State. However, somebody ought to be holding a referendum, so we may come back to this at a later stage with a different designation as to who should hold one. I am still confident that the right way is to ensure that the electorate knows that this is happening and has had an opportunity to take part in the decision. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 7 [Implementation of proposals by order]:
[Amendment No. 26A not moved.]
27: Clause 7, page 5, line 34, leave out paragraph (b) and insert—
“(b) such other persons as he considers appropriate.”
The noble Baroness said: I beg to move.
[Amendment No. 28, as an amendment to Amendment No. 27, not moved.]
On Question, Amendment No. 27 agreed to.
[Amendment No. 28A not moved.]
29: Clause 7, page 5, line 40, leave out from “consult” to end of line 41 and insert “such other persons as he considers appropriate”
The noble Baroness said: I beg to move.
[Amendment No. 30, as an amendment to Amendment No. 29, not moved.]
On Question, Amendment No. 29 agreed to.
[Amendment No. 31 not moved]
Clause 7, as amended, agreed to.
Clause 8 [Review by Boundary Committee of local government areas]:
32: Clause 8, page 6, line 6, leave out subsection (2) and insert—
“(2) Where they have conducted a review under this section the Boundary Committee may (subject to subsection (4)) recommend to the Secretary of State such boundary change as in consequence of the review seems to them desirable.”
The noble Baroness said: This large group contains technical amendments on the processes for reviewing boundaries, structure or electoral arrangements as provided for in Part 1 of the Bill and the Local Government Act 1992. I will go through them as clearly as I can.
The amendments to Clauses 8 and 10 simply ensure that when conducting a boundary review the Boundary Committee will be able to recommend that there be no change. As the Bill is drafted that would not be possible. If the committee thought that the existing boundary should be retained, it would simply not make any recommendation to the Secretary of State. The review procedure would have to come to a halt but without any public recognition that work had stopped or been completed. That is obviously not sensible. It is clearly desirable that the Boundary Committee, having decided that the boundaries should not be changed, formally completes the review process by making this recommendation to the Secretary of State. Those who have been involved in the review will then know that the Boundary Committee has reached that conclusion.
The amendments to Clause 12 ensure that the Secretary of State is able to make provision in relation to parish electoral arrangements when she makes an order for structural or boundary change. The Bill already enables the Secretary of State to make changes to parish boundaries; in certain circumstances this will require a change to parish electoral arrangements. The amendment ensures that this is possible.
The technical amendments to Clause 56 correct an error in the drafting of an amendment agreed to in another place. In an electoral review, the number of members is determined in relation to the ward they will represent, and the amendments reflect this.
The amendments to Clause 57 update Section 15 of the Local Government Act 1992, which sets out the procedure to be followed for an electoral review of wards or electoral divisions in a council’s area. In short, the amendments modernise the electoral review processes. We have met the Electoral Commission’s request that the process be made more flexible; for example, by allowing the Boundary Committee to conduct a shorter review to deal with more straightforward matters such as minor electoral boundary changes.
Further technical amendments make necessary changes to Schedules 1 and 18 to ensure that the review processes are fit for purpose. I beg to move.
We support most of these technical amendments. We are not quite certain what,
“the need to secure effective and convenient local government”
means. Perhaps that can be clarified.
The general tone of the Bill is to create more parish councils and to devolve power to local communities, but the amendments require the Secretary of State to agree to the number of parish councillors. It is suggested in other parts of the Bill that local authorities can create parish councils, so it is quite extraordinary that the number of parish councillors should then be decided by the Secretary of State. I cannot understand that; it seems totally illogical given the general tenor of the Bill.
Everyone in the Committee is sensitive to the political significance of boundary changes. Parties will fight elections and they will win or lose but, in my experience, the greatest cause of a change in the political complexion of a council is boundary changes.
We are trying to satisfy ourselves that changes fully reflect the intention of the Electoral Commission and the powers that be in local government. I would be grateful if the Minister could satisfy me that the views of the various bodies, which we all respect, have been taken fully into account. This is a sensitive area, and if we get off on the wrong footing there could be repercussions. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
The noble Lord asked about the term “convenient”. There might have been an opportunity for us to discuss this, but it has somehow vanished. The concept of something being in the interests of effective and convenient local government is long-standing in legislation. Under the Local Government Act 1972, any boundary changes had to meet that test. It also underpinned the restructuring following the Banham reviews under the Local Government Act 1992. The concept has been understood in the context of a local authority’s ability to deliver quality local services economically, efficiently and effectively, and to give local people a democratic voice in the decisions that affect them. The reason for including the words “effective and convenient” is to bring this long-understood concept into any decision on restructuring.
The noble Lord asked about local parish electoral arrangements. The local authority would be able to change parish electoral arrangements only as part of structural or boundary change, under Part 4 immediately afterwards. Was that the point the noble Lord was making?
I do not understand. If local authorities can create parish councils, even as part of any restructuring of a future local authority, unitary or otherwise, it seems extraordinary that the Secretary of State would get involved in the number on that council. Surely it could be left to the local district or county council to prescribe the number? It is really using a sledgehammer to crack a nut to have the Secretary of State involved in the number of parish councillors.
33: Clause 8, page 6, line 11, leave out “subsection (2)” and insert “this section”
34: Clause 8, page 6, leave out line 16
On Question, amendments agreed to.
35: Clause 8, page 6, line 30, at end insert—
“(e) an amalgamation of London boroughs.”
The noble Baroness said: Amendments Nos. 35, 41, 53, 54, 61 and Liberal Democrat Amendment No. 42 are all of a piece. They would protect London boroughs from being involved in any of the shenanigans that are going on at the moment. Amendment No. 35 would insert a blanket exemption from all Boundary Committee reviews of London boroughs under the Bill, which would prevent any restructuring of London borough councils under the provisions that we are discussing today.
Amendment No. 53 would reinforce the position by deleting the reference to London boroughs from the definition of local government areas. Amendment No. 41 would amend Clause 11, which provides for subsequent provisions to be included in an order to restructure. The amendment may go a little bit far, as it would prevent the establishment of county councils or district councils. It is similar to Liberal Democrat Amendment No. 42; we obviously have the same view in mind.
I hope that the noble Baroness on the Liberal Democrat Benches will be able to support Amendment No. 54, which would prevent a unitary authority from being appointed in London. I believe that we already have what purports to be a unitary authority, which is the GLA. Noble Lords have had plenty of time to debate the various qualities of that institution in proceedings on another Bill. I had rather hoped that the overall effect of our amendments would extend to preventing London from having parishes. While I recognise the merits of parish councils outside London, where they play a very different role, I do not believe that London local government needs another tier.
There are several ways in which London could be affected by the Bill. I would be grateful if the Minister would indicate the Government’s intentions. If they have no plans to involve London within the terms of the Bill, it would be helpful to know that at this stage. I beg to move.
I tabled Amendment No. 42 in this group, as the noble Baroness said. I share most of her concerns about London. I had thought that the boroughs were the unitary authorities, rather than the Greater London Authority, and I shall continue to claim that. I part company with her on parishes, because I believe that it is appropriate to have parishes in London if people want them. That is what the Liberal Democrats have said for a long time and it is the general thrust of this part of the Bill.
My Amendment No. 42 raises a general query. It is unclear to me—I had better not include my noble friends in this, because they may have understood it perfectly—how far this clause about the Boundary Committee is part of, and only part of, the proposals that are the subject of earlier clauses or whether it is a stand-alone arrangement. Unclear also is the extent to which this is required; in other words, is it not already within the Boundary Committee’s powers to do the things that are set out in the clause? I became more puzzled as I read it. I read the provision as standing alone, but I hope that the Minister will explain what is new or additional.
My amendment relates particularly to London. We need to understand whether London is potentially subject to the Bill, which I dare say would give rise to further amendments on Report. Debate about London has taken off in quite wild directions during the past two or three years, with proposals for what some people have termed “super-boroughs”, which might suit some, but certainly would not suit others. They would be very large combinations of five or six London boroughs. I hope that the Minister will help me to understand in general terms the place of this provision in the Bill.
This important group of amendments concerns London’s relationship with the restructuring proposed in the Bill. It relates also to London in relation to the Boundary Committee.
I shall address restructuring first. Last October’s invitation to councils in England was issued to all councils outside Greater London and the metropolitan counties. There were evident reasons for excluding London boroughs from that process: first, London boroughs were already single tier; and, secondly, London has its own unique arrangements—unitary London boroughs and the Greater London Authority. To have included London boroughs might well have raised some of the concerns at which noble Lords have been hinting; for example, the prospect that, following an invitation, a London borough might seek to merge with a district council outside London, thereby increasing the boundaries of the London boroughs. We did not believe that that outcome should be possible.
However, the Boundary Committee is a different matter. The process of boundary revisions set out in the Bill is new, so I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that we are starting with a blank sheet of paper. That is why it is important to include London. We need to be able to address potential boundary changes in London as a result of putting in place a permanent regime for adjusting the boundaries. London cannot be excluded from that, especially when we think of the predicted growth of London. Yet as noble Lords have said, Amendments Nos. 41, 42, 53, 54 and 61 would leave out London from the provisions of the boundary clauses and would effectively mean that there was simply no ability to make any changes to London boundaries. That would remove the discretion of the independent Boundary Committee in making recommendations, even in relation to sensible boundary adjustments.
It is also important to add, as I do not need to remind the Committee, that we have only recently debated the Greater London Authority Bill—in fact, we are still in the middle of it. If there are questions about the functional boundaries of London, other than minor boundary changes, these should be addressed through specific legislation designed for that purpose.
Amendment No. 35 specifically seeks to prevent the London boroughs from amalgamating. Again, I hope to reassure noble Lords about the recommendations; some have expressed concern that the Boundary Committee might somehow be rather casual in its process of conducting a boundary review. I stress that the boundary review is robust and scrupulous. The Boundary Committee must have regard to the need to secure effective and convenient local government and it must reflect the identities and interests of local communities. It would reach the conclusion that a boundary review was the best solution only if it had gone through those robust processes. It is an independent committee and we ought not to try to restrict its recommendations.
Amendment No. 41 would also appear to prevent the Secretary of State from establishing an authority for any local government area as a county council or a district council, and noble Lords have expressed concerns about the Secretary of State’s ability to establish an area as a London borough. However, it is surely common sense to provide for the establishment of a London borough within Clause 11, given that the Boundary Committee is able to make a recommendation that, for example, two London boroughs should be amalgamated. Without that provision, we would not be able to establish an area as a London borough following the recommendation from the Boundary Committee—should it make one—that two London boroughs should be joined.
On the issue of parishes, I am afraid that I can give the noble Baroness no satisfaction. Part 4 of the Bill obviously enables the creation of parishes in London, something that we support and put in our manifesto. It is good to have the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, on that. I hope that I have answered most of the questions raised. I am certainly happy to write with further clarification if there are points of detail on how this might work.
It is not really a point of detail, but I fear that I still find myself unclear on what proposals are contained in the Bill for powers and responsibilities for the Boundary Committee that are not already in legislation. I am not sure what is being done differently in this Bill.
Perhaps I could make an observation that has just occurred to me and my noble friend Lady Hamwee. Part of the difficulty that we have been having over the last couple of hours is that, in the Bill, the question of local government structures—the creation of unitary authorities—has been mixed with that of boundaries. That has proved unhelpful for the debate, as we are often debating two separate issues. Cynics and conspiracy theorists—of which I am, luckily, neither—could have something of a field day wondering what the Government’s future intentions might be. In this case, the Government have made a rod not just for their own backs but for the whole Committee.
In a way, it would have been helpful if we had had a stand part debate on the clauses concerned, in which we could have run through the intentions behind the clauses in relation to the Boundary Committee. Clauses 4, 5, 6 and so on set out the new procedures about how the Secretary of State can request advice from the Boundary Committee on any matter relating to a proposal to allow the Secretary of State to gain independent advice. For example, Clause 7 relates to what the Secretary of State may do to implement the advice received.
It is flying blind to compare the present proposals with the current procedures. I would like to set out graphically the present powers and purposes of the Boundary Committee and how they will change as a result of this, but none of the brief that I have here will do that very economically. However, I shall be happy to address the questions that have been raised about the amalgamation of London boroughs, as that was one of the noble Baroness’s key points. I am always open to conversation between any stages of the Bill, as noble Lords know, but let us start by taking noble Lords through the process to see how it is comparable.
Reluctant as I am to interfere in London in any sense, I have two points. First, London may think that it has unitary local government but, looking at London from outside and at the functions of the GLA, some of us think that it has two-tier local government. If the GLA is not a local authority, which legislation says that it is in some respects and not in others, nevertheless it certainly carries out a lot of functions that some of us would think were the functions of a local authority. That is an interesting point. If Londoners think that they have unitary authorities, they may be kidding themselves.
Secondly, and again on London and the Boundary Committee, is the Minister saying that in future, if there is to be a review of the boundaries of London boroughs that could result in amalgamations or carving them up into other shapes, the Secretary of State will be able to ask the Boundary Committee to do it so that the first proposals will be those from the Boundary Committee? Will that procedure be possible under the new arrangements?
As far as I understand it, the Secretary of State can invite the Boundary Committee to do that, but I believe that invitations can come from local authorities themselves if they want to do that. I shall make sure that I clarify that when I write to noble Lords.
The Minister is wise not to speculate, because we are in some trouble with this Bill. If, as has been suggested, the London boroughs can be included in the invitations going out about unitary authorities, these clauses on the boundary change are related to the earlier clauses on the coming together of county councils and unitary authorities that have been given the invitation by the Minister. That is where I need the Minister’s clarity. If not and the Boundary Committee is suddenly to be given carte blanche to deal with boundaries across the country rather than the ones with invitations, we are talking about something much wider than we have considered up to now.
I found it odd that the London boroughs were included under Clause 8 and that reference is made to them elsewhere. I understood that this part of the Bill was to be in association with what has to be done with authorities that are amalgamating or becoming unitary authorities under the previous clauses. The Minister did not quite say that and it would be helpful if we can have clarity on that today. If we cannot, it would be even more helpful to have it before the next stage. I think I am not the only one who is confused about it, because it looks as though we are talking about different things and it would be helpful to know what we are talking about.
I am concerned that London boroughs are scooped up by that provision. I had not understood that London boroughs were going to be part of the invitation or direction by the Secretary of State under this part of the Bill, which is why I sought to take it out. I would want to take it out anyway because, if London boroughs are even to be considered for amendments, that would become another Bill in itself and another discussion. I would not want that to be put on the back of the Bill and I think we need to know about that.
London boroughs are already unitary so the invitation process obviously does not apply to them. The boundary review process is simply that a local authority or the Secretary of State can request the Boundary Committee for a review, and the committee can also undertake a review on its own initiative. The clauses that we are concerned with here are ones that relate to the processes that follow from the general invitation.
I am wrong. I am sorry; I am confusing the Committee. In fact, it is the general power of the Boundary Committee to undertake reviews because it is not concerned with unitaries. These are general powers to make it a more open and flexible process for local authorities to request reviews in future. I think that should be clear now.
When committees try to draft they produce a camel, so it is said. I think we have started with a camel. I want to put my own suggestions in for the redrafting. It would be extremely helpful if the Government would think—and I do not expect a response now—about taking the bits about the Boundary Committee out of the chapter and putting them into a separate one. That way we would all know that it was a separate issue.
I agree, because I had read the provisions entirely in association with the previous clause. If that is not right, there are a few amendments coming into my head that I would want to table. I do not follow the logic but, if that is what it is, we must get the Bill sorted out in a way that is really clear because Clause 4 is a request for the Boundary Committee for England’s advice, which relates to all the provisions concerning Clauses 1 and 2 and the invitations. Then we have Clause 5, which is on the Boundary Committee’s powers and whether those are general powers or ones associated with Chapter 2 of this part of the Bill and the Boundary Committee’s procedures. Presumably, those are all listed somewhere else, so why did they pop up in the Bill? I see that the Boundary Committee must be involved where there are changes made to local authority boundaries, but in general that is not what these provisions are about. Somebody needs to re-sort all of it, because there will be problems when we arrive at Clauses 11, 12 and 13—they are on all the residuary powers—which is why I separated out those amendments.
If the Committee will indulge me, I have had some help—the cavalry have arrived—and I can explain why the provision is in this part of the Bill. Noble Lords are right; there appears to be a conflation.
Clause 8 is the crucial provision. Essentially, it allows the Boundary Committee to conduct a review of local government areas. A review can be instigated by a request from the Secretary of State or the local authority, or on the initiative of the Boundary Committee itself. I think that that covers the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. Subsection (2) provides that the Boundary Committee may only make recommendations for boundary change that seem desirable to it, having regard to,
“the need to secure effective and convenient local government”.
That is consistent with the Boundary Committee’s current approach. However, it can also recommend a boundary change, the abolition of a local government area and/or the constitution of a new local government area.
The provision is in the Bill so that the Boundary Committee cannot make recommendations for boundary change that would permit structural change through the back door. It is therefore important that it is placed alongside the provisions that make those changes possible. The Boundary Committee cannot recommend the alteration of a local government area or the creation of a new local government area which would extend into Wales, the City of London or the Temples, for example. I hope that I have clarified that.
Subsection (5) provides that the Boundary Committee must have regard to any guidance that the Secretary of State issues in connection with boundary review and that may include, for example, clarification of the legislative powers of the committee and what it can and cannot recommend where the guidance relates to a specific proposal, the economic coherence of the area or transport patterns. Subsection (6) provides that a local authority must provide information to the Boundary Committee which it requests in connection with this role, so that it has all the information it needs.
That explains the geography of the Bill. It has two roles: to give advice on a unitary proposal, in Clauses 5 and 6, and the wholly separate role of making recommendations on boundary review, in Clauses 8, 9 and 10. I hope that that clarifies the unfortunate muddle.
Clauses 11 to 19, under “Implementation of changes”, after the heading “Boundary change”. It is curious that this boundary change and implementation of changes are bunged into this Bill when we are talking about something entirely different. The question is there and I look forward to the Minister’s reply.
The Minister has said that she intends to untangle it. A hiatus has been revealed and she has attempted to explain it. In the light of the comments made, she has asked the indulgence of the Committee to allow her and her advisers to look at the situation and write to those involved before the next stage. That is a generous offer which I for one am prepared to accept.
I was not arguing about any of that. I was drawing attention to the fact that I am not sure what subsequent clauses relate to. I am very happy for the Minister to write and explain it, and to give her a chance to think about it as well. But an explanation is necessary. I accept the noble Lord’s view that we need that letter. I was not in any way going against the Minister on that.
My Lords, I was both right and wrong. They apply to both parts of the Bill, but the purpose of writing would be to explain both how they apply and where the application belongs in each of those clauses—to both the invitation and structural process and the general principles.
36: Clause 8, page 6, line 30, at end insert—
“(4A) Where the Boundary Committee have conducted a review under this section and consider that no boundary change is desirable, they may recommend to the Secretary of State that no boundary change should be made.
(4B) In considering whether (and, if so, what) boundary change is desirable, the Boundary Committee must have regard to—
(a) the need to secure effective and convenient local government; and(b) the need to reflect the identities and interests of local communities.”
37: Clause 8, page 6, line 31, leave out “(1) or (2)” and insert “(1), (2), (4A) or (4B),”
On Question, amendments agreed to.
Clause 8, as amended, agreed to.
Clause 9 agreed to.
Clause 10 [Implementation of recommendations by order]:
38: Clause 10, page 7, line 25, leave out “8” and insert “8(2)”
39: Clause 10, page 7, line 29, at end insert—
“(1A) Where the Boundary Committee make a recommendation to the Secretary of State under section 8(4A) the Secretary of State may—
(a) make a request under section 8 for a further review; or(b) decide not to make such a request.”
40: Clause 10, page 7, line 31, after “(1)” insert “or paragraph (a) or (b) of subsection (1A)”
On Question, amendments agreed to.
Clause 10, as amended, agreed to.
Clause 11 [Implementation orders: provision that may be included]:
[Amendments Nos. 41 to 42A not moved.]
43: Clause 11, page 8, line 19, leave out paragraph (c)
The noble Baroness said: In the light of previous discussion, I move this hesitatingly. We may be coming back to this as well. I rise to speak to Amendment No. 43 and oppose the Question that Clause 12 shall stand part of the Bill. Amendment No. 43, combined with the deletion of Clause 12, would erase the power of the Secretary of State to prescribe so-called “electoral matters” within an order under Clause 7 or Clause 10. Clause 7 applies to the restructuring that we are talking about in the first part of the Bill.
As the Bill is currently drafted, the Secretary of State can prescribe the total number of members of any local authority, the number and boundaries of electoral areas for electing councillors, the number of councillors to be returned in an electoral area, the name of an electoral area, the order of retirement of councillors, the election of a mayor or executive, the appointment for a transitional period and the functions of a local authority.
However, Clause 10(4)(c) in combination with Clause 12 gives the Secretary of State a completely free reign in an order made under Clauses 7 or 10. The effect is that even if a council chooses to undergo a restructuring, the Secretary of State will decide to the last details the terms of management.
Reading these measures, I am baffled that the Government make the claim in the White Paper that they will empower local communities through this legislation. Try as I might, I cannot reconcile Whitehall powers reaching lower authorities—and down to the names of electoral areas—with the empowerment of those authorities. My honourable friend in another place mooted the possibility of a local area called Kellyshire—that would be Blairshire now—which I suppose has a certain ring to it. The point remains that the Secretary of State’s stamp will be all over this local government.
The Minister in the other place noted that Clause 12 translates powers from the 1992 Act. I did not notice him justifying the translation of powers with the different provisions and wider applications. While I appreciate that the Secretary of State may need powers to affect an overall change in the boundaries, I cannot agree with the Minister in another place that the name of a local government area, electoral matters and parish boundaries are simply consequential matters. Indeed, the Minister in another place, Phil Woolas, said that it was not the Government’s desire that they should be held responsible for name changes.
It seems only sensible to take the opportunity to debate this today and the opportunity to amend and improve the legislation, whether it was included in the 1992 legislation or not. I beg to move.
I will address the amendment and speak briefly to Clause 12 stand part in order to explain some of the implications and transitional arrangements, which will help the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham.
Essentially, once decisions have been made to create a new local authority, we will seek, subject to parliamentary approval of the Bill, to make orders at the earliest opportunity. Clause 11, as described by the noble Baroness, ensures that all the necessary provisions can be included within the order. Being able to include provisions for electoral arrangements is essential. The implementation process of those arrangements is precisely what the amendment would undermine.
Obviously, it is not possible to have an operational local authority without electoral arrangements. The Local Government Act 1992 already provides the Electoral Commission with the necessary powers to establish the electoral arrangements of an authority. Where it is necessary, by reason of the scale of change, the Act can require the holding of a fresh election—one outside the normal cycle for that type of authority. It is important that changes should be implemented quickly to minimise the potential for disruption. If it were possible for the Electoral Commission quickly to determine the electoral arrangements of the new authority, we would undoubtedly rely on the existing statutory provisions. But, depending on the number of individual changes to be made at any one time, it is realistic and possible that it will take 12 to 24 months for the Electoral Commission to put in place electoral arrangements for the new authorities. I am afraid that that would mean that the whole restructuring process—as I explained earlier, it is extremely important for the benefit of local authorities for it to be as quick and as thorough as possible—would be extended. We have sought to avoid that from the outset.
We need to be able to put in place, on a purely transitional basis, arrangements for the new authorities to tide them over until the Electoral Commission is able to complete a proper review. Following an implementation order being made, the Electoral Commission will be under a duty to consider whether or not an electoral review should be conducted to create new electoral arrangements for the new authority under Clause 12(5).
In summary, once a local authority has submitted a proposal and the Secretary of State has decided to implement it, we need to minimise disruption by establishing the new authority as soon as possible, and any electoral arrangements made under Clauses 11 and 12 would effectively be transitional, pending consideration of an electoral review by the independent Electoral Commission.
Clauses 12 and 11 empower the Secretary of State to make provision for the transitional arrangements, and the powers are deliberately wide-ranging to enable us have an approach to implementation that provides the greatest local flexibility. We do not want, and cannot have, a one-size-fits-all situation; therefore, we aim to tailor the implementation arrangements to suit local circumstances. Clauses 12 and 11 will enable local authorities to make the change from two-tier to unitary structures in ways that are most effective for them, and to choose the transitional arrangements best suited to them.
We have already started a dialogue on those transitional arrangements with the LGA, individual councils and other stakeholders, including the public-sector unions. They are part of the working groups that we have set up to discuss implementation. I am pleased to say that there is widespread agreement on the approach that we propose to adopt. We will continue to work out the details with the help of those working groups following the announcement of the proposals on how we proceed towards implementation, because there are different ways that transitional arrangements can be set up.
These clauses essentially provide local authorities with means to implement unitary structures with the least disruption and allow them to make the passage into new ways of working. On that basis, I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.
Given my experience in local government, I would appreciate written briefing from the Minister on another topic. I am sure that other noble Lords will agree that the creation of a new local authority is no small matter and bringing together a number of district councils and a county council will inevitably be the result of at least one or more of the proposals on offer. It is a pretty big deal and it will take quite a long time to sort out staffing arrangements, the disposal of assets and so on. I am rather surprised that the Government take the view that that can be achieved more quickly than the commission takes to sort out the electoral arrangements. I am slightly surprised that the two cannot work in tandem, and I would appreciate some briefing on how the Government see the timetable moving forward.
While I agree with the noble Baroness that I would not wish to see progress held up while the electoral arrangements are sorted out, if it were possible for the general preparations and the electoral ones to move together in tandem, that would be much better—not least because people who live in a locality will have to get used to the fact that their council arrangements are changing radically. Then to have electoral arrangements that applied for one time only and then to have to move to another arrangement would add a degree of confusion. I do not wish to press this matter too hard now, but I would like to understand a bit more about how the Government see that moving forward.
I wonder if the Minister can help me. My experience of amalgamation comes from the London Government Act 1963, which shows my age. It was enacted in such a way that in the first elections for London boroughs, Enfield, Edmonton and Southgate came together, with elections taking place in 1964. The definitive date of operation was 1965, so for 12 months each of the councillors of those three former boroughs carried on their work as an Edmonton or, in my case, an Enfield councillor, while meeting regularly for consultation, putting flesh on the bones and making appointments.
The noble Baroness is absolutely right: it is a very traumatic—I will not say horrendous—period, especially for the officers of the amalgamated authorities. After all, they were, in northern terms, “kings of the midden” in their localities. Now they had to fight, and then take a judgment before their internal fight, as to whether they were better off having a go at somebody else. I vividly remember that good people, whom I would have hoped were employed by the London borough of Enfield, disappeared because they saw a better opportunity. Because they were good, they did not take a risk and moved somewhere safe, rather than fight it out.
The Minister could do the House, and local government generally, a service by putting flesh on the bones of this proposal. Enfield was unique. Before the amalgamation, the political complexion of Edmonton was fairly solidly Labour, and that of Southgate was absolutely Conservative, with Enfield in the middle. After the election, with 60 seats contested, the result was 31 to 29. Of course, we put the others out of their misery by taking over 10 aldermanic seats, which eased the position. It was to our regret, of course, because in the first election after 1964, in 1968, the complexion changed from 31 to 29 to 51 to 9. You might say that that would teach me a lesson. It certainly has: be a little more generous next time around in case I am the one who needs assistance.
Not for the first time it is a pleasure to have my noble friend on the Bench; his personal history is so useful to us in these debates. I am happy to provide some account of how we think the different transitional models will work. Clearly, electoral arrangements need to be in place early in the implementation process, so that there can be an election to the shadow authority. That will be responsible for carrying out much of the implementation, so these must be aligned and the shadow authority, the transition body, will be established shortly after we have made the order to create the new authority. There are different ways in which local authorities will want to do this. I would be happy to talk or write to the noble Baroness in order to set that out.
I know that I am not allowed to join in the debate, but as a recent elector in Enfield, I found what was said interesting.
[Amendment No. 44 not moved.]
Clause 11 agreed to.
Clause 12 [Provision relating to membership etc of authorities]:
45: Clause 12, page 8, line 44, after “authority” insert “or parish council”
46: Clause 12, page 9, line 7, leave out paragraph (g)
On Question, amendments agreed to.
47: Clause 12, page 9, line 9, leave out paragraphs (h) to (k)
The noble Baroness said: We are making a huge leap forward to Clause 12. Amendments Nos. 47 and 49 follow on from the previous debate, in that they relate to the governance arrangements that will emerge for the councils which come out of reorganisation either as shadow authorities or as wholly new councils. The amendments have been tabled to seek clarification from the Government about their intentions for the executive structures of the new bodies. It appears to us that under the Bill, it is for the Secretary of State to decide on the model of the executive of the new council. Can she confirm that?
It is also not clear how it will be decided which model of governance is deemed to be suitable. A new unitary council could be brought out of councils that previously had a variety of governance arrangements—they may have had a leader or a mayor, or a small authority may have kept the old committee system. The amendments have been tabled to seek clarification from the Minister about whether the Secretary of State will decide and what criteria will be used to determine the model of governance to be used in future. I beg to move.
Before I address that question, I will briefly say something for the record about the effects of the amendments. They would have the serious consequence of preventing the Secretary of State from ensuring that new authorities can begin operating at the earliest opportunity after decisions have been made by preventing the election of key officers. I am sure that the noble Baroness would not want that.
For a local authority to begin operating, obviously it needs its councillors in place. Clause 12(1)(j) allows the Secretary of State to appoint existing councillors to the new authority with a democratic mandate provided by their election from the ward or division of an existing authority. Clause 12 also makes clear that those appointments are only for a transitional period until elections can be held. Following the order that will bring the new authority into being, the Electoral Commission will be under a duty to consider whether an electoral review should be conducted to require new electoral arrangements for a new authority. That is in Clause 12(5).
Amendment No. 49 also removes the Secretary of State's power to provide within the order for the executive arrangements for the authority, which brings us to some of the questions raised by the noble Baroness. The amendment proposes that the executive arrangements for new authorities should be carried over from existing authorities, but that is hardly sensible when we are looking to a fresh start for a new local authority. It is much more desirable, not to say democratic, for the local authority that is proposing the creation of a new authority also to propose the executive arrangements.
I am sure that the noble Baroness is looking forward enormously, as I am, to Part 3. We will then have the opportunity to discuss the nature of leadership, its scope and the models that have been proposed. I do not want to anticipate that debate, but essentially, on the basis of evidence and common sense and given the growing responsibility of local authorities for place making, what people want in order to engage with local government is a leader who is visible and clearly accountable and a local council with a clear set of responsibilities. We have set out a range of models from which local authorities can choose. We have done so deliberately, because what they have in common is all being built around notions of strong leadership, strong executive powers and stability within a four-year term. We are not imposing the model: there is a limited choice of models and we will be debating that when we come to Part 3 of the Bill.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness. I would not want to pre-empt the excitement in Part 3 next week. The general approach of the Government seems to be the old Henry Ford approach: you can have any model you like so long as it is black. In the case of the arrangements, you can have any model you like so long as it is a mayor or a strong leader. We have that joy to come.
Before my noble friend withdraws her amendment, I would like to say one or two things. I do not want to start talking about leadership models at this stage, even though the Minister tempted us to do so, because we will be having some exciting discussions about that next week, I hope.
I have three points. First, the Government have got themselves into a mess over the question of the electoral arrangements for the new authorities, because the electoral arrangements depend on the leadership model that is chosen and so have to be decided before the authority is elected. There is a democratic paradox here: the people getting elected to the authority might have strong views about which model they want, but they will not be able to campaign on that—to get elected or not elected on that basis—because the decision will already have been made. For example, if people do not want a mayor but it has been decided to have a mayor, they will be lumbered with one whether they like it or not. My question is whether the time limit on changing from one set of executive arrangements to another set of executive arrangements—somewhere else in the Bill—applies to the new authority. Will a new authority, once elected, be able to change its executive arrangements within its first period of office? That would seem to be the best possible democratic compromise under what is a fairly unsatisfactory situation. That is my first question.
Secondly—actually, I think that I have four questions—if a new unitary authority is to be elected as a result of the invitations being sent out and the decisions currently being made, how will the decision be made about which executive model is to be chosen? Will it be on the basis of the bid that has been made and what the authority or authorities putting forward the unitary authority proposal have said that they would like? As I understand it, at least some of them have set out in great deal the models of government and so on, because they have to do it. Alternatively, will the Secretary of State say, “No, you want this system, but you are not going to have it. Sorry, you are going to have something different”? That is my second question: is there a presumption that it will be on the basis of the bids being put in?
Thirdly, the Minister was concerned about the amendment removing Clause 12(1)(j), which is about,
“the appointment by the Secretary of State of existing councillors to be members of a new local authority for a transitional period”.
That is not, in my understanding, what the Government have been telling local authorities will happen. They have been saying that decisions will be made by November this year, that the proposals for which ones can go forward from whatever phase we are in at the moment will be made at the end of July and that the affirmative instruments for creating the new authorities will go through Parliament in November with elections next May. The new authorities will then come into being straightaway and take over after a transitional 12 months. That is my understanding.
In that situation, I do not understand during which period appointed councillors will be needed. If there are to be appointed councillors in, for example, a unitary authority such as Shropshire, to pick one at random—where there are five districts and the proposals are to double the size of the county council to around 90, which would still be less than half the number of councillors currently on the district and county councils—who is going to choose which of those councillors should be appointed? Who is going to look at those councils? Is the Secretary of State going to say, “Ah, we’ve got Shrewsbury Council; I’ll have these people, but I won’t have those people”? This seems an anomalous process. Can the Minister explain what this business of appointed councils is all about, under what circumstances it would be necessary and how on Earth the Secretary of State would choose which ones were worthy of being on the new authority and which were to be said goodbye to?
The noble Lord has asked some quite detailed questions about the process. It is worth saying that he is right that all the proposals currently being considered contained proposals for the executive arrangements. The invitation that we issued in October last year specifically required proposals for new unitaries to include proposals for new leadership models. It is therefore obviously right that local authorities can put forward proposals rather than inheriting a leadership model from a previous council. That will answer the noble Lord’s second point.
The order setting up the new authority will specify the form of the executive. If that is subsequently changed and the council has a change of heart, the Part 3 provisions will apply. The authority would have to go through the process set out in Part 3 for when a council subsequently decides to change its arrangements. That is just part of the natural process.
The noble Lord is right about the timetable. It will roll out through May next year, with the councils coming into force in May 2009. The councillors appointed for the transitional period will be put in place between the coming into force of the order and the subsequent elections in May. I do not know the answer to the noble Lord’s questions about the specific detail of those processes, so I will have to write to him about how that will be done. These things and, naturally enough, their implementation are being discussed now. I talked earlier about conversations that have been held with the Local Government Association and so on about transitional arrangements. These are the sorts of things that will be discussed.
To pursue this point a little further, I am astonished that people think that there is a need for a transitional council between this coming November and next May, when there will be elections. I am not sure what it would do. Would it be set up with executive arrangements? Would it have a leader? Would there be all appointed councillors? This seems a totally unnecessary process.
The noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, recounted his experiences from 1963. I am glad that I cannot go back that far, but I remember the 1972 local government reorganisation when I was a member of Colne Borough Council, which was one of seven authorities coming together to form the new Pendle Borough Council. It was really quite complicated. After the passing of the 1972 Act and the elections for the new council in June 1973, perfectly adequate arrangements were in place. A committee of representatives from each of the existing councils was set up, which met to plan whatever sensible things needed to be planned. These things were not huge, but they had to be discussed at the time.
Between June 1973 and 1 April 1974, when the new authority took over, a new council was put in place, and there were 11 months in which to do it. This time there will be 12 months. All the important decisions that need to be made can be made during those 12 months. The idea of an appointed transitional council is an over-complication, which will cause real problems. The Government would be well advised to drop this and to think seriously about simply having a sensible meeting of representatives from the councils coming together.
I have listened closely to the noble Lord, who has had a lot of experience on these things. Essentially, we need to ensure that in the transition period a body of councillors is charged with overseeing the preparatory work. This clause allows us to make use of an existing body of councillors or to elect or appoint a body of councillors specifically to take over the necessary preparations. When I write to the noble Baroness with the details, we will set out some of those considerations. It is important to build in flexibility to ensure that individual circumstances are tailored to each locality. This approach has been welcomed by local government and by the stakeholders, because clearly it is a pragmatic process, which we hope will work. In the period ahead of the first elections to a shadow authority, the order setting up the new authority could, for example, empower the Secretary of State to appoint the leaders of each of the old authorities. Clearly, a number of different things could be done.
My noble friend’s questions have been helpful in disaggregating quite a package. In this clause, I found it difficult to understand what was about transitional arrangements, what were shadow arrangements and where those two overlapped. If possible, when the Minister writes it would be very helpful to have some of the information in the form of a flow chart that one could follow through to see what steps will be taken at any given time. Perhaps I may add a comment to that request. Some of the answers that the Minister gave to my noble friend were in terms of the current invitations in the current round, but there may be broader issues than can be answered just by using the immediate examples.
I was just about to withdraw the amendment when my noble friend intervened, but it was well worth it. We will have to await the letter from the Minister, which will guide us on how we progress this rather complex issue on Report. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
48: Clause 12, page 9, line 11, leave out “existing councillors” and insert “members of an existing local authority”
On Question, amendment agreed to.
[Amendment No. 49 not moved.]
Clause 12, as amended, agreed to.
Clause 13 agreed to.
Clause 14 [Regulations for supplementing orders]:
On Question, Whether Clause 14 shall stand part of the Bill?
In light of the discussions we have had over this section, I am very glad that I disaggregated these clauses. Now that I am clearer that Clause 7 applies to those authorities that have been invited to apply and Clause 10 applies en général to any authorities that decide that they want in wider terms to rearrange their affairs, that brings us to Clauses 14 and 15 affecting both, not just the authorities listed under Clause 2. Clause 14 has to be read with Clause 15, because Clause 15 relates to it and Clause 14(2) says that Clause 14(1) has to be read with Clause 15.
We need to try and pick out, particularly in relation to Clause 7, how many of these transitional arrangements are already being canvassed and how much it is considered that they ought to be put in hand now, even before the orders have been laid, or whether they can be left for six months until the orders have been confirmed and the legislation has been approved. So under Clauses 14 and 15—we can discuss Clauses 16 and 17 separately but they are about the same thing—how can we establish what has been done in the name of Clause 7 and what has been done in the name of Clause 10? Clause 10 is a wider and less dated clause but, under Clauses 14 and 15, the processes could start at any time for any of the authorities being considered. In light of the way this legislation is going, they have probably started already. Could the Minister give an overview on Clauses 14 and 15?
As the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, links Clauses 14 and 15, could I just question the transitional arrangements? These include such things as, in Clause 15(1)(d), the transfer of staff compensation for loss of office. I have the greatest admiration for people who work in local government across the country. They are immensely professional, work very hard, are of great integrity and have a real commitment to public service. Having said that, my experience is that these transitions can be extremely expensive for council tax payers.
Does having this provision mean that there are going to be new regulations which go beyond, above or below the standard terms and conditions that we already have? As the noble Baroness knows, local government already has issues of recruitment and retention. There are issues of whether we can retain people against the private sector and against the rest of the public sector—local government retires at 65, and the rest of the public sector retires at 60. Certainly in previous reorganisations, the arrangements were such that staff had to be made redundant from one authority before transferring to another. The terms attached to that were extremely generous and the transfer arrangements did not always work out in the best interests of council tax payers. We need absolute clarity on this issue and I come back to my main point: why is this issue here when we already have standard conditions across the country? Are conditions going to be more generous? Are they going to be less generous? How is it going to work?
I will take noble Lords through what Clauses 14 and 15 actually do. I hope that will answer the questions the noble Lord has raised. I will refer to the amendments because I think that might shed a little light on some of those questions.
Essentially, Clause 14—“Regulations for supplementing orders”—is a technical clause which allows the Secretary of State to make provision by regulations for incidental, consequential, transitional or supplementary purposes as a consequence of an order under Clauses 7 or 10 for structural and/or boundary change. Such provisions may include those outlined in Clause 15—I shall come to those in a minute. However, although it is a technical matter, the Secretary of State will provide in the individual restructuring orders for matters specific to each area—for example, the number of councillors.
This power to make regulations will be used to make overarching regulations which are applicable to all structured areas as well, and may deal with common matters. This might involve, for example, general modifications needed to primary legislation regarding financial matters and so on. So there are two types of potential regulations. Essentially, all that Clause 14 does is enable the making of those kinds of regulations.
While Clauses 13 and 14 allow the Secretary of State to make those incidental and consequential regulations, Clause 15 outlines what those provisions may include. They may include provision for the transfer of function, property rights or liabilities from a local authority or police authority for any area to another local authority or police authority whose area consists of or includes the whole or a part of the area. They also make arrangements for the transfer of staff, compensation for loss of office, pensions and other staffing matters. Obviously I do not need to tell the noble Lord that these provisions are essential to enable the transfer of functions and responsibilities from an old authority that will be dissolved under an order to the new authority. As the noble Lord said, it is important for that transition to be as smooth and with as little disruption as possible.
What terms and conditions will apply to staff transferring is a matter on which discussions are being started with the LGA, the trade unions and other parties. No decisions have yet been taken but this clearly will develop in the course of the conversations that will be had, especially after the end of this month. I shall certainly keep the noble Lord informed about that. Once decisions are taken, they will be reflected in the orders and regulations under the Bill. The process will be transparent and follow the normal practice. That will happen once the Bill is enacted.
Clause 15(2) provides that an order or regulation related to structural or boundary change,
“may for any incidental, consequential, transitional or supplementary purpose … modify, exclude or apply … any enactment … repeal or revoke any enactment”.
In plain English, that means that the law can be adapted to fit the new authorities; for example, by amending the membership of police authorities. The clause provides examples of provision that can be made as a part or a consequence of the order. I hope that helps the noble Baroness.
Perhaps I may say a few words about the amendments. Amendment No. 50 seeks to amend Clause 16, which enables public bodies to make agreements with respect to incidental measures. It will be necessary for public bodies to make more than one agreement. The precedent “from time to time”—which I think is the issue raised in the amendment—is set out in the Local Government Act 1992 so, again, it is a concept of practice which is well known. I hope that will reassure noble Lords.
Amendment No. 51 seeks to amend Clause 18, which provides for the establishment of staff commissions to facilitate the staffing arrangements in new local authorities. We have no intention or plans to establish new staff commissions, but the Bill allows the Secretary of State to give directions to any relevant authority affected by an order in respect of the payment of any expenses incurred by a staff commission in doing anything requested by the authority. Where expenses are not recovered from a relevant local authority, Clause 12 provides that these can be paid by the Secretary of State out of money provided by Parliament. It is a common-sense measure. Again, we have taken that precedent from the Local Government Act 1992, which allows staff commissions to be funded.
These provisions allow us to implement structural boundary changes in a way that follows long-established procedures. I am sure that noble Lords would not want to press their amendments as they would essentially undermine those procedures. I hope that with that explanation—
May I just ask the Minister whether the DCLG has given any thought to the classification of continuing authorities? Say two authorities are being merged. If one is a continuing authority, its staff do not have to be made redundant, which can make a continuing saving. But it could add certain core staff. Has consideration been given to that issue?
This has turned into an interesting debate. I have just one more question for the Minister. Local authorities have been changing and coming together and there have been reorganisations for many years. Do the provisions in this Bill appear in any other legislation as they are here, or are these changes to other legislation? I am not clear why they pop up under Clauses 7 or 10. In Clause 7, they are prevailing for the authorities that are about to come together. Are these provisions not laid out in other Local Government Acts? Are they completely new? If they are completely new, we ought to treat them with a great deal of detail because they have substantial powers of sorting out the liabilities, functions, property ownership, transfer of property, rights or liabilities. There is an enormous amount of function in here and they are clearly transitional arrangements. I wonder why they need to appear here. Perhaps they need to appear under an indication that they are part of another Act.
I am fairly certain that while they are specific to this Act, as I have explained, several of the elements of this are borrowed from the Local Government Act 1992. Most of the provisions are taken from there. We often debate in this House the merit of having issues on the face of Bills. It is important that we have this sort of thing on the face of the Bill so that we can discuss it. This is not the first time that we have had local government reorganisation; indeed, the 1992 Act is our master plan for this.
50: Clause 16, page 11, line 18, leave out “from time to time”
The noble Baroness said: This is a very small amendment to Clause 16. It also gives us an opportunity to look at Clause 16, which continues the transitional arrangements and cheers itself up according to incidental matters that are again buried in here. I fully accept the Minister’s explanation about the provision being on the face of the Bill. That is extremely helpful, otherwise we would have to dig it out. I am not quite clear why “from time to time” appears. I imagine that these are, by and large, transitional arrangements that would be made—full stop. The amendment would just remove “from time to time” and I ask the Minister why those words are there. I beg to move.
Thank God it is Thursday afternoon. I have inadvertently spoken to the amendment already, again by reference to our favourite Act—the Local Government Act 1992. The phrase appears there because it is necessary for public bodies to make more than one agreement in respect of incidental matters, including property, income and rights. The precedent of “from time to time” is set in that Act, so we need it in this Bill as well.
I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 16 agreed to.
Clause 17 agreed to.
Clause 18 [Staff commissions]:
[Amendment No. 51 not moved.]
Clause 18 agreed to.
Clause 19 agreed to.
Clause 20 [Correction of orders]:
On Question, Whether Clause 20 shall stand part of the Bill?
I suppose that it is relative. The clause allows the Secretary of State to rectify a mistake in any order made under the chapter; for example, an order making a structural and/or boundary change, or an order containing incidental or consequential provision. If the original order contained a mistake—for example, an omission or incomplete information supplied by a local authority—the Secretary of State may correct it. Subsection (2) makes it clear that a “mistake” includes,
“a provision contained in or omitted from the order in reliance on inaccurate or incomplete information supplied by any public body”.
Where the Secretary of State makes an order under the provisions of this chapter, provisions of that order may take effect on the coming into force of the order and therefore, having taken effect, be spent. Were there to be an error or omission in one of the spent provisions of the order, the Secretary of State would be unable to address it through the normal provisions in the Interpretation Act 1978, which allow the Secretary of State certain powers to amend orders previously made. For example, if the order’s consequential provisions inadvertently included or omitted a parish council, which would be a serious omission, and we could not address it using the powers of the Interpretation Act 1978, we would use the powers in this clause to correct it.
I assure the Committee that it is not the Government’s intention to use the clause to change the order and depart from it, which would be a misuse. This is a common-sense provision, because we all know that errors or omissions are inevitable when orders are made within a tight timescale. There is a precedent for this. The previous Administration took similar powers under Section 26(6) of the Local Government Act 1992. The clause is a safeguard measure. I hope that noble Lords will be content with that explanation.
It has been rather a surreal debate this afternoon, because for at least two-thirds of it we have been discussing action that has predated the legislation. Clause 21 gives more detail on that. It permits the Secretary of State to invite authorities to restructure before the Bill is itself enacted: we are discussing a clause giving her the power to undertake what she is already doing. The reality is that if the Secretary of State is not acting against the law, she is certainly not within the law, as the law does not exist. We are taking legislation through Parliament simply to justify actions that she is already undertaking.
There is nothing to stop the Secretary of State from amending this Bill as she goes along to best fit the law to her purposes. Earlier government amendments seem to do just that, narrowing the consultation process. I cannot see why the Government have chosen to include this part of the Bill, given that the Secretary of State is simply going on with the plans regardless. This part of the Bill is simply an exercise in formality; it is little more than a withdrawal from parliamentary proceedings to expect both Houses merely to rubber-stamp practices that are going on elsewhere. In a sense, we can guarantee that anything we have debated in Committee today will not be taken away and looked at, because the Secretary of State is already operating under these draft criteria that have not been agreed.
As I said at the outset, we are debating this legislation with our hands tied behind our back. I do not know why the Government have decided to legislate in this way, much as I cannot see why your Lordships are expected to sanction it. Nevertheless, it is important that the Minister clarifies Clause 21. I would be grateful if, in doing so, she could say what steps would be taken if the Secretary of State were, for example, to name a local authority, only to have the power to do so removed from this Bill. This is quite plainly retrospective legislation, even though the Minister has said that it comes within powers already in the Secretary of State’s hands. I am prepared to hear the Government’s case, but I feel uneasy about how this has been presented. Clause 21 does not make me feel any better.
I hope that I can reassure the noble Baroness, because there is really nothing perverse or sinister about this clause. It just provides that if, before the commencement of Chapter 1 of Part 1 of the Bill—provisions that relate to structural and boundary change—the Secretary of State issues an invitation, or guidance, or receives or consults on proposals received, she can implement such proposals after commencement of this part.
This clause will simply allow us to implement the proposals received in response to the invitation that we issued last October, and which we judge as meeting the criteria to proceed towards implementation. In our second debate today, I went to some pains to assure the noble Baroness that there was nothing retrospective about this clause. It in no way validates or seeks to make lawful things that, before the Bill’s enactment, were not valid or lawful. Yet it has enabled us to undertake the process of invitation and consultation in parallel with the passage of the Bill through Parliament.
As I explained, we were warmly encouraged by local authorities to make this process as painless and speedy as possible, and this clause was one way of helping us to do that. It has to be done quickly to minimise the period of uncertainty in any area, or periods when there is sharp contention and debate about the best way forward. It is pragmatic in minimising the scope for potential disruption to local services and effective local leadership. Again, Clause 21 enables us to keep as short as possible the process of restructuring while getting it right.
If Clause 21 were removed not only would we have failed in that aim, but I am afraid that we would also have rendered pointless all the activity and effort that councillors up and down the country have devoted to developing and seeking to take forward their unitary proposals, which they feel strongly are in the interests of their local communities. I hope that the noble Baroness is satisfied with that explanation.
The Minister keeps talking about local authorities up and down the country. Let us be very specific about this: we are talking about 16 or possibly eight local authorities. There is an awful lot of legislation going on for a very limited number. We are not talking about great swathes of local authorities, so we do not want to get too carried away.
Clause 21 agreed to.
Clause 22 agreed to.
Clause 23 [Definitions for purposes of Chapter 1]:
[Amendments Nos. 53 to 57 not moved.]
Clause 23 agreed to.
Clause 24 [Authorities dissolved by orders: control of disposals, contracts and reserves]:
58: Clause 24, page 16, line 19, at end insert—
“(5) Nothing in this chapter nor in any direction from the Secretary of State shall restrict a relevant authority from utilising their financial reserves to reduce their budget requirement for council tax purposes.”
The noble Baroness said: I wish also to speak to the Questions whether Clauses 24, 25 and 26 shall stand part of the Bill and to Amendments Nos. 59 and 60. This is a group of probing amendments that will, I hope, allow us to clarify the function of these clauses.
Clauses 24, 25 and 26 provide for the transitional arrangements between councils, which I am sure are all well in order. However, I have a few concerns about the thresholds established in Clause 24. The clause allows the Secretary of State to direct that an authority may dispose of land if it is worth less than £100,000, enter into a capital contract which is worth less than £1 million or enter into a non-capital contract worth less than £100,000. The clause is expressed in negative terms so the Secretary of State can direct a relevant authority not to enter into such contracts above those thresholds—but these are simply two sides to the same coin.
It was my initial concern that such a direction could supersede existing contract law—though I am no expert in contract law—and create extremely difficult situations for those who enter into contracts with authorities that are ongoing. While I cannot believe that this could actually be the case, I would be grateful to the Minister if she could set out on the record the safeguards, however well hidden, in this clause.
Clauses 25 and 26 are consequential on Clause 24 and, if that clause can be shown to be in order, I would be content not to press the Questions whether they should stand part.
Amendments Nos. 59 and 60 go hand in hand; they perform a double function. First, they would uphold the principle in our earlier debate that activity under the legislation should not anticipate its passage by the House. Secondly, they would provide local authorities and those taking out contracts with a little more flexibility in the negotiating process. It has been pointed out that decision-making froze in the 26 local authorities that tabled bids. Nobody knows which bids will be accepted and, in the interim, local authorities are in a hiatus. Amendments Nos. 59 and 60 would simply allow local authorities flexibility to make their own decisions in the coming months while giving them the certainty that if their bids are not to be accepted they may simply continue as before. Those amendments also prevent this law applying retrospectively to any contracts or investments that authorities may have made.
While the clause stand part Questions in this group are probing, Amendments Nos. 59 and 60 simply express a reasonable wish to give local authorities beneficial certainty about their situation, and flexibility and freedom in their negotiations. I beg to move.
Removing the clauses would take away a very important safeguard of the interests of new authorities and, much more importantly, the interests of council tax payers in areas being restructured. I am sure that noble Lords opposite are not prepared to see council tax payers burdened by irresponsible decisions of councils that are to be abolished through restructuring, which is what the clause attempts to prevent.
We would all like to think that there would be no such councils. The idea is that everyone involved in restructuring would work together to ensure that change is smooth and efficient and that all decisions fully safeguard the position of those who will be responsible in future for delivering services and leading local communities. Like noble Lords opposite, I wish that that was achievable without having these clauses in the Bill.
I agree that these clauses, which restrict what councils can do in certain circumstances, are not devolutionary, but sadly I believe they are necessary if our greater devolutionary aim of allowing councils to seek unitary structures is to enable them to deliver in full the benefits to council tax payers and service users. It would be reckless to think they were not necessary and to try to remove them, because sadly there are many examples from previous rounds of restructuring where authorities to be dissolved acted irresponsibly over assets, disposals and contracts. The clauses would safeguard against that. Their purpose is simply to ensure that councils that are to be dissolved do not dispose of valuable lands, enter into long-term contracts or apply financial reserves to reduce council tax above a limit that may be specified by the Secretary of State. All those things would have a negative effect on any new authority.
These clauses do not mean that an outgoing authority has to cease business. The Secretary of State, or the other person specified in the direction as being the person to give consent, may consent to a disposal, to the authority entering into the contract or to the use of reserves. The Secretary of State may specify that consent should be sought from the new authority if, for example, it has already been established as a shadow authority. These clauses do not seek to remove the discretion of local authorities to spend a reasonable amount of reserves to reduce their budget requirement for council tax purposes or any other reason. However, allowing the Secretary of State to restrict the amount of reserves an authority includes in its calculation of its budget requirement, even for the purpose of reducing council tax, is essential to prevent the situation I described.
Amendment No. 58 would open the door to a council using reserves with the following possible effects: reserves that may otherwise have been available to the new authority might no longer be available; it might artificially lower council tax in the area, making it harder for the new authority to equalise council tax across the area as a whole. Those actions potentially undermine a new authority’s financial position both in the cost of restructuring and in the future as it looks to equalise services and service provision. Lastly, an undue use of reserves in a given year places further pressure on the Government’s fiscal rules, as it adversely affects the fiscal aggregate in a given year by increasing spending but not receipts.
This is not about the Government being dictatorial and restricting what authorities can do; it is about prudence and ensuring the financial viability of the new unitary authorities. Therefore, the provisions should remain part of the Bill.
Amendments Nos. 59 and 60 would amend “31 December 2006” in Clause 27 to “the commencement date of this Part”. That would seriously weaken the safeguards against irresponsible decisions. The inclusion of “31 December 2006” means that the value of disposals or any contracts entered into from that date by authorities that are to be abolished count for the purposes of the direction issued under Clause 24. Clause 24 allows the Secretary of State to require an authority that is going to be dissolved to obtain consent before it can dispose of land over £100,000, enter into certain contracts or include an amount of financial reserves when calculating its budget requirement for council tax purposes. In effect, the clause would mean that, for example, if an authority disposed of land worth £60,000 on 2 January 2007, once subject to a direction under Clause 24, if it sought to dispose of a further piece of land worth £50,000 after the date of the direction, it would need to seek consent for that further disposal because it will count: the value of both transactions is £110,000, which is over the £100,000 limit. So alteration of the date would mean that councils that are to be abolished would be free to make disposals or enter into contracts until the commencement of the provisions in Clause 24 without any subsequent consequences as to what they could do once the Bill had been implemented. That would obviously weaken the safeguards.
The noble Baroness asked what would happen if a local authority entered into a contract without consent. I am told that if an outgoing local authority which was subject to a direction entered into a contract without consent, the contract would not be enforceable against the successor authority. Clause 28(2) provides for that.
These are technical issues, but they provide further safeguards in what could be an unfortunate process. I think that they are necessary and I hope the noble Baroness will be able to withdraw the amendment.
I would be grateful for the Minister’s reply on that. I think that it is essential. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 24 agreed to.
Clauses 25 and 26 agreed to.
Clause 27 [Consideration to be taken into account for purposes of direction]:
[Amendments Nos. 59 and 60 not moved.]
Clause 27 agreed to.
Clauses 28 and 29 agreed to.
Clause 30 [Definitions for purposes of Chapter 2]:
[Amendment No. 61 not moved.]
Clause 30 agreed to.
Clause 31 agreed to.
Clause 32 [Resolution for whole-council elections]:
62: Clause 32, page 19, line 10, at end insert—
“( ) A council must not pass a resolution under this section until a period equivalent to at least two full four year electoral cycles has passed since the last time any such resolution was passed or since the existing electoral scheme was started.”
The noble Lord said: We move on to Part 2 of the Bill, galloping through the pages to the ever-exciting issue of elections. We are now debating Chapter 1, on the power of district councils in England to change their systems and specifically their schemes for elections, which basically means whether they have elections once every four years, two years or annually with one fallow year—so three years in four. In moving Amendment No. 62, I shall also speak to Amendments Nos. 73 and 84. They are all the same amendment but relate to different circumstances.
I have tabled a number of related groups of amendments, all of which seek to free up the ability of local authorities and councils to decide their own electoral arrangements without undue imposition from the centre. As for electoral arrangements, there clearly has to be quite a lot of controlled supervision of local authorities, more than in many other areas. By the very nature of elections, if authorities are simply allowed to do what they want and how they want in any circumstances, some might behave in somewhat undesirable ways in order to preserve the election and office of those who are there at the moment. I accept that there have to be detailed rules and regulations about elections and safeguards laid down, but many of the restrictions that the Government are proposing, and which already exist in many cases, are too great.
The first amendment is a fairly straightforward, simple one. It says that once a scheme for a particular election—whether it is whole council, by halves or by thirds—has been approved, it will not be changed until there have been two subsequent elections, which seems a reasonable time period. I think that is what the Government are saying in their more complicated elections that refer to particular dates and all the rest of it. If that is what they are saying, they should say it in a nice simple way, which is what I have offered them here. I beg to move.
We have some sympathy and agree that councils should be able to determine their own cycles or arrangements under proper electoral procedures. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, could clarify whether he was trying to insist that they had to wait two cycles? If they were to be left to their own arrangements and wanted to have an all-out election fairly rapidly, they should be allowed to do so. I was not quite clear when he was moving his amendment whether we should support it. He almost seemed to be prescribing one fixed system, when we all thought that we should allow a local council to decide for itself what it was going to do.
I still think that there is good sense in this amendment. If after due deliberation it is felt that the system is defective and another one is brought in, it needs to have a reasonable time to bed down. If it is possible after two or four years to say, “This is not working, change it. You are operating a poor system, we will change it”, that could be good, but it could also lead to Tammany Hall politics.
If a party, or an individual with power, decides that a change in the electoral system is beneficial politically and takes advantage of that because it cannot be stopped, that is not good for democracy. Two elections in eight years is a sensible period, during which the cycle can work or not—it stumbles along after the first four years and is found to be dissatisfactory after the second. There is some sense in this amendment.
I see this amendment as being rather more prescriptive than the noble Lord’s interpretation. The Government are opposed to Amendments Nos. 62, 73 and 84. District councils that are eligible to change their electoral cycles should not be placed under too many restrictions as to when a resolution may be passed.
When devolving responsibilities to local authorities, we must be prepared to trust them to act responsibly. Preventing a local authority from changing its electoral cycle within eight years of a previous decision to change is too restrictive. The Bill provides for a council to resolve to change its scheme for elections at shorter intervals. It would be up to district councils to decide whether it is sensible to change their scheme after only four years. As set out in the White Paper and as recommended by the Electoral Commission in its January 2004 report, the Government believe that whole-council elections are the most appropriate scheme for an authority to operate.
Our main concern is that the restrictions within the amendments tabled may prevent councils moving to whole-council elections in the first place as they will be stuck on that cycle for eight years. Therefore, they may not be prepared to change their scheme of elections in the first place. The amendment is overly restrictive and will discourage councils from changing to whole-elections. I hope that at this stage the noble Lord will consider withdrawing his amendment.
Before my noble friend does so, I wonder whether the Government have any comment on a point to which my noble friend alluded, but did not develop. If a local authority makes a change and then rather rapidly makes another and another—because presumably this could go on and on—it must be open to concern about whether it is doing so for party political reasons, not gerrymandering as it is not about boundaries, but thinking that it will get the right result if it changes the system. That would be a bad thing.
Before the noble Baroness sits down—or even before the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, stands up—perhaps I may continue. The permitted resolution periods under Part 2 will ensure that at least one full electoral cycle is completed under any new scheme. We believe that this is the right approach. Noble Lords should note also—this is the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, is trying to draw out of me—that the Bill currently provides for a resolution to be passed by a two-thirds majority which will ensure that changes will be made only when a significant majority of the council supports a change. This is an important safeguard that we believe should provide stability and mean that councils will not switch backwards and forwards between different schemes of elections with, for example, every change of political control. With that additional note on the record, I hope that the noble Lord will consider withdrawing the amendment.
I am grateful for the Minister’s comments and from other noble Lords who have taken part. I have to say that I thought I was being slightly less restrictive than the Government. I will go back and read very carefully what she said and what the Bill says. Perhaps I misunderstood it. I understand the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Graham, and my noble friend Lady Hamwee. There is a possibility that if the electoral system is changed too frequently, there will be considerable local confusion. One of the points on which I will elaborate shortly is that I do not think that it matters if lots of different councils have lots of different systems; what matters is the system that applies in a particular place and whether local people understand it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 32 agreed to.
Clause 33 [Resolution for whole-council elections: requirements]:
63: Clause 33, page 19, line 15, leave out “such” and insert “local electors and such other”
The noble Lord said: In moving the amendment, I shall speak to the other amendments in the group, all of which repeat two amendments applied to three different circumstances.
I propose that there should be adequate consultation before a local authority takes a decision to change electoral arrangements. The Government are proposing that the council should have,
“taken reasonable steps to consult such persons as it thinks appropriate”.
I want to make absolutely certain that local electors are among those consulted. Secondly, I propose that the minimum requirement for consultation of local electors and others is a notice in at least one local newspaper and a notice on the council’s website.
These are important matters. The Government may say, “Well, they will do that anyway, won’t they?”, and a good, sensible council would take those steps. However, again this comes back to the point that changing electoral systems is a sensitive matter, because people’s motives for doing it may, on the one hand, be entirely virtuous, or, on the other, somewhat selfish in that they may think that a new electoral system will be to their advantage.
Electoral systems are sensitive in that way and it is important that councils take proper steps to consult people reasonably and that, having consulted, they consider the representations made before making decisions. We all know of councils that are models of consultation and consider the responses. We also know of councils that are not so good. It is a fundamental point. I beg to move.
We agree with the general thrust of these amendments: the electors of an area should be consulted. Therefore, one has much sympathy with the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, but the Minister made a valid point about the need for a two-thirds majority. I have already had discussions with several district councils which would like to change, but think that they are most unlikely to get the two-thirds majority. It has been suggested that people might want to switch backwards and forwards because of political necessity; this will not happen because of the two-thirds majority. Indeed, the two-thirds majority might be too restrictive in getting enough to change.
Elections every four years are much the best way of enabling a mandate to get things done. We have three-year finance plans, et cetera. It is ridiculous when authorities change political control year by year. It is not good for the people in that area. I am a little concerned that the two-thirds majority will stop some of the district councils going to four-yearly elections, when the majority of people there would like to do so. Some of the fears expressed are unfounded, but we support consultation of the electorate.
We seem to be in some difficulty about how prescriptive we should be. As presently worded, the Bill would allow the local authority to determine the extent of the consultation. Any general council will have members from all political parties and none, and I would like to believe that we can trust it to make sure that its corner is respected. I hesitate to believe that any local authority will not be minded to ensure that it cannot be attacked on the grounds of bias, or in any other way, if it is seeking to consult with the populace as to what should change, and when and how. The amendment, to make sure that certain things happen, is unnecessary in this situation.
I understand the motivation behind the amendments, but I agree with my noble friend Lord Hanningfield. I speak today for the first time not as chairman of the Local Government Association, having ceased to be that yesterday. My experience, going around the country, shows that it is in the interests of good local government to have elections every four years. The kind of strategic, long-term decisions that need to be made must be taken with a four-year view. These include financial decisions, the decisions that Michael Lyons concentrated on around the place-making issue, the regeneration of towns and work with partners. Local government is expected to work in strategic partnership with local area agreement boards today. You simply cannot change the council representatives every year. It is absolutely imperative that we do all we can to encourage councils to go for whole-elections every four years.
I thank the noble Lord for tabling his amendment and giving us the opportunity for this brief but important discussion on publicising changes to the electoral cycle. I fully appreciate his concerns about the need to ensure that local authorities publicise any changes as widely and as appropriately as possible. Again, I fear that I must return to the point about the amendment being far too prescriptive. As I have said, these amendments are all concerned with the level of consultation to be undertaken by a district council that proposes to change its scheme for elections.
The Government do not believe that it is necessary to specify exactly who the district council should take reasonable steps to consult, other than to say that it should be anyone whom the council thinks it appropriate to consult on the change. This is part of devolution and we need to trust local authorities, democratically elected and accountable to their electorate, to consult those people whom one might reasonably expect to be consulted on such matters, including local government electors. We therefore do not believe that including specific provision in the Bill is necessary. The amendments go against the devolutionary spirit of the Bill.
At Second Reading, when I had what I would not quite call the pleasure of making the Second Reading speech for my noble friend Lady Andrews, the point that struck me in the debate that followed was the consensus on the encouraging devolutionary nature of the Bill. I hope that we do not feel it necessary to include in the Bill the need to place advertisements in local papers, and so on, and I hope that the noble Lord will consider withdrawing his amendment.
I thank the Minister and everyone else for their comments. As we go through the Bill, many of us will be arguing strongly for devolution and for the freeing of local authorities on all manner of things. The point that I made earlier was that electoral matters are different in kind from many other things because they affect the very existence or membership of the authority. However, having listened to the discussion, I will reply to some of the points made when we discuss the next amendment and, for the time being, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendment No. 64 not moved.]
65: Clause 33, page 19, line 19, leave out subsections (4) to (6)
The noble Lord said: This group and the following group are more substantial and come to the heart of the question of whether the Government are really willing to give local authorities more freedom—to let go, to use the phrase used by the Minister this morning.
Amendment No. 65 and the other three amendments, Amendments Nos. 68, 77 and 85, which stand in my name in this group are a linked series of amendments intended to remove the concept of permitted resolution periods and permitted resolution years for changing electoral systems. They would allow local authorities to make that decision at any time during the electoral cycle. There does not seem to me to be any particular reason why they should be restricted to one year or a part of the year. What I propose concerning parts of the year would allow people to make earlier decisions, which would allow more planning for the changes that must take place.
Concerning the years, there seems to be a belief that all councils that have whole-council elections in a particular category should poll on the first Thursday in May in the same year. I see no reason why that should happen. It is a view of neatness which is a national view but has no relevance whatever to people in a particular authority. What does it matter to someone in Leeds whether the council polls in the same year as a council in Scunthorpe? It really does not matter at all.
There will be local elections of some sort somewhere in pretty well every year. It seems to me that people should be allowed to make the decision when they want and get on with it. That is the basis of the amendment. I beg to move.
I would be delighted if the clauses were pre-empted. My amendments stem from curiosity about why the Government have chosen the particular dates. I have not taken the argument as far as my noble friend, but he is right to have done so—he has probably asked the questions that I would need to ask.
Briefly on the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, one of our problems is that the public already do not understand about elections. We have a job to promote local government elections, for example, as not enough people vote in them. There would be even more confusion if one place had an election in one year and one in another year. Other countries, everywhere in the world, seem to have similar elections on certain days—most countries have it planned for many years ahead. I would be opposed to having different sorts of elections at different times. That would add confusion and make even fewer people vote than vote now.
Out of curiosity, is the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, suggesting that authorities in the same class could determine to have their elections at different times? As I understand the situation, the law lays down that all district or metropolitan or any other class elections should take place at the same time. If, in pursuit of freedom, democracy and devolution, it is left to the whim or otherwise of every local authority to determine when it should have its elections, that would be a recipe for chaos. I may have got it wrong—it would not be for the first time—but I am asking a question. If my surmise is correct, I do not think that the amendment would improve the reputation or the well-being of local authorities in the eyes of the public.
I hope to provide some clarity following these interesting and important probing amendments, which we have looked at carefully. Amendments Nos. 65, 77 and 85 would remove the resolution periods, which would mean that district councils would be able to resolve and then change their schemes for elections at any time. That relates to the question of chaos just mentioned by my noble friend. Currently, there is a clear pattern of elections by type of authority across England. All the councils of the same class—county council, London borough, metropolitan district and non-metropolitan district—that operate the same scheme of elections do so in the same years. For example, all non-metropolitan districts on whole-council elections elect in 2011, 2015 and so on.
The resolution periods ensure that the pattern continues. To remove them and allow elections to take place at different times across the country would cause considerable confusion for all those involved in local government elections, including the electors, no doubt. It would also be detrimental to those who wish to stand as county and district councillors if elections took place in the same year, which is currently prevented by the timing of the resolution periods. The resolution periods are set so that, once a decision is made, the change happens as soon as possible and the national pattern of elections for different classes of council is maintained.
We are also opposed to Amendment No. 68. Whole-council elections for non-metropolitan district councils have always taken place in the same year. The 1972 Act set the years of elections as 1979 and every fourth year thereafter. This pattern has been followed since then. We do not believe that this should be changed by the Bill, because it provides clarity to electoral administrators, political parties, candidates and, above all, electors. Allowing councils to have elections whenever they liked would increase confusion among all the groups and not lead to effective local government elections.
We have carefully considered Amendments Nos. 66, 67, 86 and 87. After the initial extended resolution period that begins with the commencement of Part 2, the Bill provides for short resolution periods of three months. We have proposed these three-month periods to give a short, specified opportunity to pass a resolution. Following this, the council will be able to get on with normal business under its existing electoral cycle or prepare for a change in the cycle. The consultation, which we have already discussed and agreed to be important, and the local debate that will be needed can take place prior to the three-month period. It is only the resolution that must be passed during that three-month period. Three months is sufficient for councils to be able to hold a meeting and pass a resolution. However, we are listening to the concerns raised by the noble Lords opposite.
In the light of my remarks, I hope that noble Lords will not press Amendments Nos. 65, 68, 77 and 85. We give an undertaking to think further about Amendments Nos. 66, 67, 86 and 87. I hope that that provides the Committee with some clarification.
I did not imagine that the Government would agree with me on this, which is all to do with people at national level who want neatness and nothing at all to do with confusion. Among non-metropolitan districts and existing unitary authorities, there are already three different systems of elections. Many still poll by thirds, seven poll by halves—I am grateful for an Answer from the Minister this week, because I know how many of them there are now—and the rest use whole-council elections. These are not separated into different parts of the country; the pattern is very mixed up all over the place.
Nobody thinks that this causes real confusion. The Electoral Commission did some work on it in 2003 and its report, The Cycle of Local Government Elections in England, recommended that there should be whole-council elections once every four years. It suggested that that would provide a model that would be equitable and easy to understand and would best serve the interests of electors. But when I talk to people at a local level, I cannot find anybody who thinks it important that the years in which their council is elected—whether by thirds, by halves or by the whole council—should be decided by what people in other parts of the country think. By and large, there are established patterns. It is interesting that, despite the fact that authorities have been able to move to whole-council elections since 1974, of the non-metropolitan districts that originally opted for election by thirds, only 11 have done so.
There is a great deal of conservatism about local election systems, but the reason for that is that people are used to what happens in their areas. The Electoral Commission said that people do not know when the elections are going to be and what is going on. If there is an election every four years, they will not know in which year it is coming up. In an election in an area such as ours, where we have a local election every year—three times for the district and once for the county—people know. They know that there is a council election on the first Thursday in May, or some time in the spring, every year. What determines voters knowing when the elections are coming up is how much publicity there is about the elections before they take place. That partly depends on whether the council is publicising them adequately, but it mainly depends on the candidates in the local political parties. They are the people who tell the public when the polls are and who say, “Come on, get out and vote”. I really do not think that confusion exists among electors.
The one argument that I accept—the noble Lord mentioned it—is about the two-tier system. In two-tier areas, it would be stupid to have the district council elections on the same day as the county elections, although I remind noble Lords that that is what used to happen in urban districts and municipal boroughs before 1974. It was not very satisfactory. The turnout in county elections was always significantly below the turnout in district elections. Having two elections in two months was not a very satisfactory state of affairs. So I accept that that should be the case. On the rest of it, I do not agree.
There is a lot to be said for all London boroughs perhaps polling on the same day, because they all use whole-council elections. If they are to stay that way, there is sense in having local arrangements like that. But for metropolitan districts that go to whole-council elections, if any do, it does not matter on which of the four years two or three out of the 10 or 11 districts in Greater Manchester, for example, poll. If Wigan and Stockport decide to go for whole-council elections, the fact that they are in different years would not make the slightest difference, because the rest of Greater Manchester would still be polling every year. I think that this issue has been grossly overstated. It is a matter of neatness and tidiness by administrators at a national level and has nothing to do with the situation on the ground. However, in the light of what has been said, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendments Nos. 66 and 67 not moved.]
Clause 33 agreed to.
Clause 34 [Scheme for whole-council elections]:
[Amendment No. 68 not moved.]
Clause 34 agreed to.
Clauses 35 and 36 agreed to.
Clause 37 [Resolution for elections by halves]:
69: Clause 37, page 21, line 3, leave out “non-metropolitan”
The noble Lord said: This is an important amendment on a substantive issue, which had quite a good going over in Committee in the House of Commons, where it became very clear that Members of Parliament were attached to different kinds of electoral systems on the basis of their own experience. Apparently, most people are in favour of the system with which they have grown up and which they knew and liked. But some people, on the basis of their experience, want to change, which reflects accurately the situation throughout the country.
This group of amendments seeks to give all councils the option to choose whether to have whole-council elections every four years, elections by thirds in three of those four years or elections by halves. For a year or two, it has been policy for the Government to encourage people to move away from whole-council elections. Before then, the opposite was the case. It all depends on who is doing the thinking, the reports, the surveys or happens to be in Downing Street advising or dreaming up new ideas for the Government. I do not criticise people for doing that useful job, but it depends on the theme or fad of the moment. What gets put in legislation is accidental: it depends on where the fad of the moment coincides with another Bill in which it can be inserted. That is how it works.
There are good arguments for both whole-council elections and for elections by thirds, some of which have been put forward today. At the local district level, there are very strong arguments in favour of annual elections by thirds. There are probably good arguments in favour of elections every two years, which is a good compromise because it provides an administration with two years to get on with things before having to go to the polls again. However, for many councils, every four years is too long. It may provide people with the opportunity to make strategic decisions and strategic choices, although that may be a large council view coming from Kent County Council; I do not in any way criticise that. For smaller councils and for more compact urban councils, there is a great deal to be said for the turnover of members being evolutionary rather than sudden and catastrophic. Some of these big councils do not change their political composition very often anyhow and it takes a substantial national change of political climate for that to happen.
Having decided that they want to encourage councils to move to whole-council elections, though not forcing them to do so, the Government produced this Bill. As a result of pressure that was put forward in the House of Commons in favour of annual elections or alternate half-council elections, the Bill has been modified—I think it was on Report in the Commons—to allow those councils which had previously been electing by thirds or halves and then moved to whole-council to move back again. This seems illogical. If it is okay for the seven councils that elect by halves or the 11 councils that had moved to whole-council from a third to move back again, why can other people not move back? This seems an issue on which the Government should let the councils make their own decisions to move in either direction. There is no serious evidence that leadership in whole-council elections is better than leadership in election by thirds or halves. That evidence does not exist and people should be acting on what is being said about devolution.
The arguments for annual elections or elections in halves are that if change is taking place, it takes place more slowly. There is greater stability. You do not have the risk that a party that has been running a council for four years—doing a good or bad job—is swept out not because of its record locally, but because it happens to be the party of the Government of the day, who are in mid-term and extremely unpopular, and people are voting for non-local reasons. Most people in local elections nowadays vote for local reasons, or far more than people think. Nevertheless, there are occasions—and some of us can remember such years in the past—when everybody of one party is swept out. It happened in 1990 when the Labour Party swept the board; it happened in 1977 when the Tories swept the board. Having annual elections is a safeguard against local decision-making and local politics being quite so subject to such an undesirable. I was a member of Lancashire County Council from 1977 to 1981. At that time Lancashire County Council, which has been Labour-controlled since 1981, consisted of 84 Conservatives, 12 Labour members—including the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, whom I first met then—and me. That was it. It was an absolute travesty. For that to last four years was not desirable for local government. I therefore believe that there ought to be local decision-making on this and that councils ought to be able to move whichever way they want. That is in the spirit of these devolutionary days and the devolutionary rhetoric that we have heard from Ministers. I beg to move.
Having enjoyed making a Second Reading speech on behalf of my noble friend, I will not make another one now. I think the noble Lord is aware of what I am going to say.
The Electoral Commission has recommended that whole-council elections should be put in place across the country. While accepting that whole-council elections have benefits in terms of direct accountability, the White Paper recognised that some areas have a tradition of partial council elections—elections by halves and elections by thirds. We are therefore allowing councils that have previously operated elections by halves or by thirds to revert to them. However, where a council has always held whole-council elections—which is the pattern of elections that the Electoral Commission has both recommended and demonstrated to be in the interests of electors and effective democratic processes—it would be perverse now to give them the option of moving away from that system. The Government are promoting a very consistent policy; this is why we have limited the councils that can move to halves to the ones which have a tradition of that system of elections.
I hope the noble Lord will withdraw the amendment. As I have said, if he wishes to discuss matters at greater length outside the Committee, I shall be very happy to do so. However, we have been very clear through the White Paper and through the passage of the Bill in another place that it is important to recognise existing traditions while promoting our overarching policy of whole elections.
I am open to the arguments on either side. I come from a whole-council election tradition, and I understand that system better than the other; nevertheless, one can make an argument for either side. Do the Government have available to them any evidence about the impact of different electoral systems on the performance of local authorities? After all, we have had a plethora of inspecting bodies—the Audit Commission, Ofsted, the Commission for Social Care Inspection and so on.
I am sure the noble Baroness will accept that we are very committed to evidence-based policy-making. There is evidence, but I do not have it to hand. I shall be very happy to write to her and ensure that Members of the Committee have access to that information before Report.
I do not believe there is any evidence at all and I shall be very interested to see what the Minister comes up with. The real evidence would be among non-metropolitan districts where the difference systems exist; you could not compare a county council with a metropolitan borough or a London borough. But some of the best performing councils in the country now—I do not know about CPAs and such like—are metropolitan district authorities, big city authorities and others which are elected by thirds.
I am disappointed by the slight Stalinism of the Minister’s response; it seems to fly in the face of the devolutionary rhetoric. I say that tongue in cheek; it is certainly not a personal comment but it may be a comment on her Government. I have no intention of attempting to divide the House at 5.55 pm on a Thursday, so I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
[Amendments Nos. 70 to 74 not moved.]
Clause 37 agreed to.
Clause 38 [Resolution for elections by halves: requirements]:
[Amendments Nos. 75 to 77 not moved.]
Clause 38 agreed to.
Clause 39 [Resolution for elections by thirds]:
[Amendments Nos. 78 to 81 not moved.]
Clause 39 agreed to.
Clause 40 [Resolution for elections by thirds: requirements]:
[Amendments Nos. 82 to 87 not moved.]
Clause 40 agreed to.
Clauses 41 to 50 agreed to.
Clause 51 [Position if Electoral Commission act under existing powers]:
On Question, Whether Clause 51 shall stand part of the Bill?
I propose that Clause 51 should stand part of the Bill. It deals with a case in which the Electoral Commission has received a notice that a council has passed a resolution for partial-council elections and has exercised its power under Section 13(3) of the Local Government Act 1992 to direct the Boundary Committee to conduct an electoral review.
Where, after having undertaken the review, the Boundary Committee recommends that electoral changes are made to the council’s area, Clause 51 ensures that, in making the order that implements the new scheme—the partial-council elections order—the Electoral Commission does not have to include provision for anything that can be provided for in an order made under Section 17 of the Local Government Act 1992.
An order under Section 17, an electoral changes order, can make provision about matters such as the total number of councillors for a council’s area, the number and boundaries of the electoral areas into which that area is divided, the number of councillors to be elected for any electoral area in that principal area and the apportionment of councillors among electoral areas.
The clause clarifies which legislation is to be used when making either a partial-council elections order—for elections by halves or elections by thirds—or an electoral changes order.
We will be using this Bill or the 1992 Act. This technical clause ensures that the right legislation is used, depending on whether an electoral order is made under the Bill or, following the need for boundary changes, it has to be made under the 1992 Act. I hope that I have been able to explain that adequately. If not, I am very happy to attempt to do so on another occasion.