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Local Elections (Ordinary Day of Elections in 2009) Order 2008

Volume 705: debated on Tuesday 4 November 2008

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 7 October be approved.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, we are today considering the draft of an order to move the date of the local government elections in England in 2009 from Thursday 7 May to the same date on which elections will be held across the United Kingdom for the European Parliament. As unanimously agreed by every state in the European Union, the elections to the European Parliament in 2009 must be held between 4 and 7 June. In the United Kingdom, we are planning to hold these elections on Thursday 4 June. An order under Section 4 of the European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002 will shortly be made.

As a result of this order, the 2009 election date for 34 principal councils in England will be moved. The councils are the 27 county councils in the remaining two-tier areas and seven unitary councils: Bristol City Council, the Isle of Wight County Council and the new unitary councils of Bedford, Central Bedfordshire, Cornwall, Shropshire and Wiltshire. The order will also move the elections in around 75 parish councils across England and on the Isles of Scilly.

In addition, the order will move the elections for directly elected mayors to be held in 2009 in Doncaster, Hartlepool and North Tyneside. Stoke, too, had a mayoral election scheduled for 2009, but the people of Stoke voted last Thursday that there should no longer be a mayoral model there. Therefore, there will not be a mayoral election in 2009 and the existing mayor’s term of office will end on the fourth day after 4 June. In place of the mayoral model, the leader and cabinet model will be implemented, in accordance with the proposals drawn up by the city council.

As approved by Parliament earlier this year, 1 April 2009 will see the implementation of nine new unitary councils. Of those nine new authorities, five—Bedford, Central Bedfordshire, Cornwall, Shropshire and Wiltshire—are scheduled to have elections in 2009. The four new unitaries of Cheshire East, Cheshire West and Chester, Durham and Northumberland held elections in 2008.

As noble Lords may know, a particularly problematic situation has arisen in Cornwall. Let me explain. Following parliamentary approval of the restructuring orders in February this year, the Boundary Committee began electoral reviews of Cornwall, Shropshire and Wiltshire. Disappointingly, the committee has yet to publish its draft recommendations on Cornwall and has informed the county council that it will not be in a position to complete its review for elections on the new electoral arrangements in June 2009. All parties locally are in agreement that the first election to the new unitary authority should be on new electoral arrangements, including a new number of councillors. Therefore, although the 2009 elections order will apply to Cornwall County Council, my honourable friend the Minister for Local Government has indicated that he is currently minded to defer the elections in Cornwall. We will take soundings and consult those affected in Cornwall about the appropriate date for elections, which we expect will take place in October.

The order has no effect outside England. In 2009 there are no local elections for councils in Scotland and Wales. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has indicated that he will shortly bring forward legislation that seeks Parliament’s approval to postpone the 2009 local elections in light of the planned restructuring of local government.

This order represents an important change, which will affect the 18 million people who will be eligible to vote in the local elections scheduled for 2009. Approximately 2,000 seats on principal councils will be contested. All electors in the UK will be eligible to vote in the European elections, and 72 Members of the European Parliament will be returned.

It is important to stress that this change has been founded on clear and extensive consultation. Our 12-week consultation on whether the local elections should be moved closed on 11 August, by which time we had received 278 responses. This included representations from the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Local Government Association, nearly 200 councils and a number of the political parties. Few were opposed to the proposal for the elections to be held on the same day. On 7 October, I placed in the Library a copy of our report, which summarises consultees’ views, sets out the Government’s response to the issues raised as part of the consultation and provides the rationale for the change.

Some concerns were raised that, due to increased complexities in the administration of elections and the possible risk of voter confusion, the local elections should not be moved. Based on the responses that we received from, among others, the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators and local authorities responsible for administering elections, I am confident that local authorities and the suppliers with which they work will have the capacity to manage local and European elections held on the same date in June next year. I am also sure that, following the recent legislative changes that the Government have brought forward, sufficient work has been done to raise public awareness, which will reduce risks of voter confusion both at the ballot box and when distinguishing between the different issues on which people are being asked to vote.

However, despite these concerns being raised, the results of the consultation were conclusive, as I said. Moving the date of the local elections to the date of the European Parliament elections in 2009 is supported by the great majority of those who responded to our consultation. I am pleased to say that the Conservative Party stated in its response that, in the context that it spelt out,

“the Conservative Party will not oppose the proposals on the consultation paper”.

It added that,

“this should not be taken as an endorsement of combined elections as the norm”.

The Local Government Association and many councils supported the move to holding the elections on the same day. The Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators shared the view that the date of the local elections should be moved, provided that certain practical issues were addressed.

Why are we proposing to move the local election dates? There are four reasons. First, holding the local and European elections on the same day will be more convenient to voters, who will have to visit the polling station once rather than twice in a four-week period. We think that this will mean that more voters are likely to participate in the elections, which would be a very good thing.

Secondly, having both elections on the same day will avoid the start of the European election period overlapping with the end of the local election period. Were there to be such an overlap, it could be confusing for voters. One has only to reflect on the possibility that, a few days before voting in the council elections, voters might receive a new poll card with different details for the European election in the next month. We need to reduce and remove confusion.

Thirdly, holding two elections on the same day will reduce the costs incurred by local authorities, returning officers and political parties in distributing election material, contacting voters, canvassing and holding the polls. It will be more efficient and cost-effective.

Fourthly, holding the two elections on the same day is not only more efficient but likely to be more effective democratically. It will enable those responsible for voter awareness campaigns, particularly local authorities, to concentrate their efforts on increasing the awareness of one single election day. As I said, I think that that means that people will be more likely to turn out and vote. We all want to see increased participation.

It is our firm belief that both the local elections to councils and the European Parliament elections are important opportunities for the people of this country democratically to choose those who, in one way or another, will be responsible for decisions that will have a major impact on their day-to-day lives.

We have debated the role of local government many times in this House. We all agree that councillors provide strategic leadership to their communities. They deliver local services but, with partners, they have a central role to promote and secure economic prosperity. No task today is more challenging or more central to the concerns and interests of every local elector.

Equally, the European Parliament is not some irrelevant, distant body with no impact on people’s day-to-day lives; quite the contrary, it is part of the decision-making arrangements for tackling those big issues—the environment, climate change, trade and employment—which affect the quality of life of everyone in this country and which can only be successfully tackled by working together at a European level.

Good EU legislation has removed barriers across Europe and raised social and environmental standards. In short, it is recognition of the importance of both elections that has led us to conclude that they should be held on the same day. Past evidence shows that it is right for local and European elections to be held on the same day. That is clearly demonstrated by the experience of the elections in 2004, when both were held on 10 June. The result was a significant increase in voter turnout. For the European elections in 2004, the voter turnout was 38.5 per cent compared to 24 per cent previously. For the 2004 district council elections there was again a significant increase— 41 per cent compared to 30 per cent for the previous equivalent elections, held in 2000. The Electoral Commission reflected that by saying that,

“combining the European Parliamentary elections with local and London Mayoral and Assembly elections was an important factor in the improvement in turnout”.

However, I recognise that the Scottish elections in 2007, when two elections were held together, resulted in a number of problems. An independent review of the Scottish elections was conducted by Ron Gould, who made a number of recommendations in October 2007. We have taken them into account in our decision about combining the date of the elections. The Electoral Commission also concluded that the 2009 local elections should be held with the European elections and stated in its response that it was difficult to see how holding two elections four weeks apart was in keeping with the Gould report’s overarching theme of putting the elector first, especially as Gould recommended that the decoupled elections be held one year apart, fearing voter fatigue if the elections were any closer together. We are only too aware of that in this Committee.

This draft order makes provision to address those issues. Most importantly, it provides, as proposed by many of those who responded to the consultation, for the European parliamentary elections in England to be administered by reference to local authority areas, not, as currently, by reference to parliamentary constituencies. It also provides that the local returning officer for those elections will be the person who administers local elections in that area.

The order also addresses a number of other consequential issues which those responding to the consultation suggested should be addressed. It contains the necessary provisions to enable elections to parish councils to take place alongside the principal council and European elections in June. It extends the term of office for sitting councillors and mayors. It provides that, from 7 November 2008, no by-elections will be required to fill casual vacancies of councils with elections in 2009. It also provides for annual meetings of joint authorities and parish councils to take place at a date later than currently required by statute.

To sum up, the order is widely supported, and there are clear and compelling reasons to hold both elections on the same day. It is an approach strongly supported by evidence, including from the 2004 elections. I commend the order. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 7 October be approved. 27th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.—(Baroness Andrews.)

My Lords, I thank the Minister for explaining the order. When I was first asked to speak to the order I thought, “That’s okay. It makes logical common sense; it is more convenient for the voters; only one visit to the polling station will be needed rather than two in two months; and it will be cheaper to administer”. Therefore, I thought I should support the order and then sit down. Indeed, I was even prepared to discount the rumour that when they thought up this idea the Government’s PR gurus did not want a hit of bad results in May followed by more bad news in June, preferring just one hit of bad news—hence the order bringing the dates together. However, as I looked into the matter I realised that there were issues that needed a response from the Minister.

First, Article 5, which is entitled “Elections to fill casual vacancies”, provides that the provision should commence seven, not six, months before the June 2009 election. Why should sections of the electorate be unrepresented and disenfranchised for seven, not six, months? Why not just roll forward by one month? In another place John Healey said that it provides more clarity and certainty for the returning officers. That sounds like rather a weak answer. What is not clear and certain about “six months before” the election date? Some have rather mischievously suggested to me that the Labour Government would prefer to restrict the number of by-elections that they would lose. That seems rather cynical, so I am sure the Minister will want to give a better answer than the Minister did in another place.

Secondly, I was reminded of the shambles caused by the high number of spoilt ballot papers on previous occasions. I refer to the 2004 combined London election and also to the elections in Scotland in 2007 when confusion and spoilt ballot papers caused some anger, to put it mildly. The confusion arises because of the difficulty in understanding the different voting systems and ballot papers. We hope that lessons have been learnt. I understand that ballot papers must be separate and in different colours with clear instructions. Let us hope that the system works.

Thirdly, there is the issue of postal voting. In 2004 the north-west endured an all-postal system, which was a fiasco as some electors were sent the wrong ballot papers. Again I understand that lessons have been learnt so that this time there will be no all-postal elections. Postal votes will now form only a proportion of the votes, and the vast majority of votes cast will be at polling stations.

Fourthly, it has been brought to my attention that there is some confusion and uncertainty regarding Cornwall in that the Boundary Commission is being tardy in deciding the size of the new council. It has yet to produce its draft recommendations, so the Government have to delay elections for Cornwall from the beginning of June to the end of October 2000, some five months after the rest of the country. That seems to smack of incompetence. All these issues should have been ironed out before the new council system was put in place. What Cornish folk need is clarity; what they have got is total confusion and uncertainty.

Cornwall also raises the issue of Article 5—elections to fill casual vacancies. Will Cornwall’s date remain 9 November 2008 or will it be rolled forward? Not to roll it forward would mean that some of the electorate in Cornwall might be disenfranchised for 12 months rather than the existing six months.

Fifthly, the unresolved and unthought-out issues relating to the new unitary council in Cornwall raise uncertainty for other counties; namely, Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk. Their sentence is still pending and unresolved. Can the Minister confirm that their election will take place on Euro-day under the existing system? I should declare that I have been a councillor in Norfolk for the past 10 years.

I use the words “sentence is still pending” because the Government seem hell bent on imposing a unitary system on my home county of Norfolk against the wishes of the vast majority of those consulted. I use the word “consulted” loosely because the Government did not ask, “Do you want a unitary system or are you happy with the two-tier system you currently have?”. The question the Government posed was, “What type of unitary system do you want?—that is, “We want to impose a unitary system, so you choose what system you want”. Huge cost, time and confusion have ensued. A number of schemes were floated. Is the Norwich area to be expanded to form one unitary area? Should Great Yarmouth in Norfolk be joined with Lowestoft in Suffolk to form one unitary area—Yartoft? Should Norfolk be split into two unitary areas, east and west, centred on Norwich and King’s Lynn, or should all Norfolk be one unitary council? All that time, money and effort were expended when the vast majority want to be left alone to continue with their existing two-tier system. If this is the Government’s idea of consultation, it is hardly worth the paper it is written on. Let us hope that the consultation process being enacted in the Planning Bill will not only consult fully but will listen to and heed the responses.

Most people work on the premise that “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, but the Government seem to work on the premise that “If it ain’t broke, let’s break it”, as ably demonstrated by the confusions in Cornwall. Why will the Government not listen to the people of Norfolk? That would be democracy. As regards the order, presumably Norfolk, Devon and Suffolk will continue with their preferred existing system until such time as the Government impose another system. What started out as a fairly simple order, as I thought, has raised a number of issues. On the whole, we support the order in that it is right to bring the dates together, but I should like the Minister to address my concerns.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for delivering the order to the House in person and taking a little time off from her day job on the Planning Bill, but perhaps this is light relief. Certainly, the number of noble Lords present and the nature of this event make it seem very different from our discussions on the European elections five years ago when we dealt with the Bill which led to the all-postal vote elections mentioned by the noble Earl. Those were highly controversial and the Bill ping-ponged vigorously between the two Houses. Indeed, I think that the number of times it ping-ponged remained a record for several years. The Government have seen sense over that and are to be congratulated on doing so. It is a pity that they did not see sense before the event, but never mind, sense afterwards is better than no sense at all.

The Liberal Democrats do not oppose the order; we would have brought along more troops had we intended to do so. However, I am a little less enthusiastic about the principle of it than was my honourable friend Andrew Stunell in the House of Commons Delegated Legislation Committee. The noble Earl said that the Government might be doing this because they did not want a hit of bad news. I do not know what will happen in next year’s elections. However, being the kind of freak who follows local council by-elections every week, I do know that in the couple of months since the party conferences, the party which has lost most local council by-elections is the Conservative Party. Something is happening down in the undergrowth which is a bit different from what has been happening in the past 12 months or two years. Who knows whether it will continue, but I advise the Tories not to be too gung-ho about their likely performance in the elections next May. However, the position may, of course, be as they say, and if it is, the Government will get two hits of bad news. It is a question of whether they are a month apart or three days apart, because the European elections are counted three days after the local elections.

However, the principle of the order worries me a little. I am very wary of what I call the Government’s messing about with electoral processes. We discussed that on the previous elections Bill, which became an Act that allowed the Government to do that. I understand and accept that they have gone through all the processes of consultation which Parliament pressured them to write into the legislation. Nevertheless, all Governments have to be very careful indeed about messing about with electoral systems administratively or through delegated legislation. If every five years the local elections are to take place on the same day as the European elections, which now seems to be the pattern, that should be put in the legislation so that we all know it will happen and it cannot be manipulated by any Government for party political reasons.

In principle I am in favour of separate elections for each kind of body on separate dates because that allows the public debate and the campaigns for those elections to focus on the issues that relate to those particular bodies. There is a temptation to say that local government elections are not as important as all the rest and that we can just bundle them in with something else. That devalues local government. Given the events taking place across the Atlantic today, 4 November, this is probably not the best time to argue this case given that the American electors, who apparently, will join huge queues—or lines, as they call them over there—will vote for umpteen different offices on the same day and on the same paper. However, our culture is different and I think that local elections ought to be kept separate as much as possible.

Having said that, I agree that there are some good practical reasons for combining them, particularly given the closeness of the elections and the overlap of the timetable, which I have no doubt would cause confusion and would certainly cause extra administration for local authorities and returning officers. I should declare an interest as I sincerely hope that I will not be a candidate in any elections that may take place in the spring, but my name will probably appear on leaflets as an agent for Liberal Democrat candidates in my area. From a practical point of view, the prospect of holding election campaigns in the warmer days and lighter nights of May, as opposed to at the end of March and April, is very welcome. Given that general elections are now often held in June, the Government ought to think very seriously indeed that the answer to all this may well be to move the ordinary day of local elections from May to June. I put that forward as a way of avoiding all the difficulties and problems which seem to come up year after year.

The Government have made much of the turnout in 2004. There is no doubt that the turnout at the 2004 European elections was considerably higher than it had been prior to that. The Government say that the figure was 42 per cent as opposed to 30 per cent, or something like that. I have refreshed my memory by reading some Electoral Commission papers that were published after that event. There is no doubt that the turnout in the European elections went up overall by about 10 or 15 per cent. However, it is absolutely clear that there were three reasons for that and only one of them was due to having the local elections on the same day. One reason was the all-postal vote pilots that took place in the north of England and the east Midlands, which, by and large, seemed to have put the turnout up by 5 per cent or more in those areas, perhaps a bit more. About a third of the increase in those areas was attributed to that.

Another third of the increase in the areas that had local elections seemed to be due to the two elections being together, but underlying it all there was a general increase in turnout for those European elections. Of the overall increase in the turnout, about a third was an underlying increase in turnout for the European elections, about a third seemed to be associated with having them on the same day as the local elections in some areas, and about a third seemed to be associated with having all-postal vote pilots in the areas that had them. The Government are overegging the pudding in claiming that the increase was all due to having them on the same day, not least because somewhere like Scotland did not have local elections.

I shall consider one or two of the details of the order. Despite what I have said about having elections on separate days, having the parish elections on the same day is very sensible. The way in which the basic legislation says that in those circumstances the parish elections should be put off for three weeks is crackers. With the best will in the world, most of those the last time that happened had very low turnout. That is sensible and, again, I hope that will be integrated into future legislation.

Article 5 on the six-month rule for casual vacancies being made seven months is wrong. There is no doubt that there is no need for that to happen. It is not clear why the Government are doing it. The noble Earl suggested that it was to avoid by-elections; I think that it is just for convenience. I do not understand why it is happening, particularly as many of the authorities are county councils with large electoral divisions that have only one councillor. The Government are always going on nowadays about the importance of what they call front-line councillors and the way in which they are getting engaged with the community. Representing the community is a major part of being a councillor. There is no reason for an area not to have a councillor, in a single-member ward, in a big area, for seven months. It could have been slipped forward a month with the rest, and it ought to have been. That is one of the main faults of the order.

Article 7 on moving the administration of the European elections to the local authority area is very sensible. I understand that the forthcoming Political Parties and Elections Bill will make that the norm in general. That is very sensible, and the Government are to be congratulated on that.

The extension of what I call the limbo period, when the new unitary authorities will be under the control of implementation executives or shadow executives rather than a proper, elected council, is regrettable. It is not particularly a direct consequence of this order, but—I am trying to think of polite words to use about the way in which the Government have gone about setting up the new unitary authorities—it has not been as competently or as efficiently done as many of us would have liked. As a result, because it has not been properly thought out, these problems are occurring. One hopes that there will not be serious problems as a result, but it is fairly clear that there could be, and if there are problems it will be entirely the Government’s fault.

Most of the questions about Cornwall were winkled out in the Commons Committee by my honourable friends Andrew Stunell and Dan Rogerson, the Member of Parliament for North Cornwall. The Minister has already confirmed tonight that the Government expect to have the Cornish elections at the end of October. All I can say is that the sooner that the order to change the Cornish election date comes to Parliament the better. Again, it is a shambolic situation when people do not know, even if they think they know, when the elections are going to be. Will any parish council elections that are due to take place this next year in Cornwall still go ahead on the day of the European elections? Specifically, I understand that new parishes are being set up in the district of Restormel. Can we expect them to go ahead? I understand that it is the wish locally that they should get on and set up the new parishes now that it has all been agreed.

The noble Earl referred to the confusion about different ballot papers. I do not think that there is much confusion in most places, because people are used to having a ballot paper for the district and a ballot paper for the parish, or a ballot paper for the general election and a ballot paper for the local election. They cope with that very well. The one place where people still seem to have confusion is in mayoral elections, where there is the rather extraordinary electoral system called the supplementary vote, which is used for mayoral elections and which, as noble Lords who have heard me talk about this before will know, I think is an appalling system that should be changed. Nevertheless, the way in which that happens, with people having to put two ‘X’s in two different columns, is very confusing and leads to a lot of wasted votes that are not transferred across. The more that people can be given clear explanations of how that works the better.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House to present the order. We will wave it on its way, with a few criticisms.

My Lords, I am delighted to speak in this debate. It seems to me to be blindingly obvious that we ought to have the two elections at the same time, although I absolutely agree with my noble friend Lord Greaves that the answer should be to put this in proper legislation, rather than having to go through the process every five years. It makes sense to go ahead on that basis. The Explanatory Notes go on about returning officers and voters and that side of things. Perhaps the Minister would allow me to say a word for the political activists and the foot soldiers, which we no doubt are ourselves. As for having to go round twice in two months leafleting and canvassing and everything else that we do these days, although we are all enthusiastic enough to do it, on behalf of the foot soldiers of politics I can say that this is probably a good move.

I declare an interest: I am a selected candidate for Cornwall unitary council. I want to ask a couple of questions about Cornwall. The Minister is absolutely right that the political consensus is for changing the boundaries—I think that it is 123 members—so there is a necessity to put the elections back to October. That is wrong. I think that it should be the same number, which is 82, that it should happen in June and we should just get on with it. It is just a method for more councillors to try to keep their jobs. I agree that that is the consensus and that is the way in which the Government have been requested to move forward.

There is one area that I do not understand and which is important for accountability and democracy. In the order that we originally debated in the Moses Room several months ago, it was clear that the existing districts came to an end in April or at the beginning of May. How will the governance of Cornwall work, and who is responsible for what happens between the end of the existing regime and the start of the new elected unitary authority in October next year? There is a long gap there, and I have no idea how local democracy will work during that time.

As other noble Lords have said, I would also like to know when we are likely to know the actual date of the election and the timetable of the boundaries committee. My noble friend Lord Greaves mentioned parish elections. One of the other areas that came up when we debated the original order about unitary councils was that, I think in Cornwall and maybe in other places, parish elections were put off until something like 2013. The Government were going to think about that again. Have they thought any further about that? Lastly, when can we expect to have another order, which I presume has to be made, to confirm the Cornish arrangements?

I thank the noble Earl and my noble friend Lord Greaves for raising many of these questions.

My Lords, I think that I detected some support for the order. My heart rose when I heard the noble Earl’s first few sentences, but it sank progressively as he listed his complaints. I shall deal with them and leave the issues regarding Cornwall to last.

Given this momentous day for global democracy, particularly regarding the extraordinary situation in the United States, this order is appropriate. We may be discussing elections in a modest way in this Chamber, but at least we are part of the dialogue, which is extremely appropriate today.

I shall deal first with the questions of the noble Earl, who started by asking about the casual vacancies and the seven-month period. I cannot improve too much on what my honourable friend said in the other place. I apologise for referring to the House as the Committee on occasions during my opening remarks. Those references were left over from the Planning Bill. I know that the House is very much resumed.

The point is that returning officers need clarity as to when the period starts during which casual vacancies do not need to be filled. The date will be 7 November, whether the election is held in May or June. In the other place, my honourable friend said that political parties, returning officers and electoral administration officers already had November in mind as the cut-off date for casual vacancies. When proposing to move the elections back, we had to decide whether to move the cut-off point back as well, or to maintain the existing deadline. It seemed sensible to stick to the latter, because people were already familiar with it. That approach was taken when we combined the elections in 2004; therefore, there is a precedent. The decision provides certainty, not just for returning officers, but for everyone concerned with managing the election and participating in it, including the political parties. I hope that that answers the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson.

The noble Earl raised various issues relating to process, including postal voting. Each local authority will deal with postal votes in its own area. This time there will be no all-postal elections; thereby, only a proportion of votes will be cast by post. We expect that in all areas most votes will be cast in the traditional manner at polling stations on election day. The noble Earl probably knows that we have put in place many safeguards against postal voting fraud, which will meet his concerns.

The noble Earl was right about the ballot papers being separated by different colours. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, was equally right to say that people are sophisticated enough to deal with that. There will be clear instructions and the ballot papers will be in different colours. On the question of spoilt ballot papers, in Scotland in May 2007 there was some confusion due to the combination of polls, the mix of voting systems, whether to put a cross or a tick, and so on. We have learned from that. Separate ballot papers and clear instructions will be utilised to avoid confusion, and I am sure that we will be in a better position.

I understand noble Lords’ concerns about the local elections in Cornwall and on what basis they will be held. It might be worth putting on the record how the situation has evolved during the past two months. The Boundary Committee wrote to Cornwall County Council on 15 August 2008 to inform it that an order setting out the electoral arrangements for the new unitary Cornwall council would not be made by the Electoral Commission in time for the new arrangements to be implemented on the ordinary day of elections in 2009. That would potentially mean that an election to the new unitary Cornwall council would take place in 2009 on the basis of the number of councillors and the electoral divisions of the old county council, as the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, said. It is disappointing, but there is no point in naming and shaming at this stage. It is important to focus on achieving credibility and democratic legitimacy for the new local government arrangements in Cornwall. We must ensure that the new council is a success.

Those principles underlie our discussions with Cornish members and the affected authorities. We have spoken to the chair of the Electoral Commission, who, while focusing on ensuring that the democratic legitimacy of the new council is achieved as soon as possible, needs to ensure that the commission and the Boundary Committee follow the proper and appropriate statutory processes and procedures. Following that discussion, the commission has written to the department, setting out its intended timetable. It appears that the earliest that the commission expects to make an order to establish the new electoral arrangements would be at the end of August 2009. That would suggest that the earliest that an election could be held would be late October.

The Minister for Local Government in the other place has indicated that he is minded to bring a draft order, for consideration by the House in due course, seeking to move the date of the election in Cornwall to October 2009. It is very important that we consult those affected in Cornwall and take further soundings as to the appropriate election date. It is important that we take advice from councillors, parties and everyone interested regarding the confirmation of our approach. We have been in close consultation to date and we will continue that. We will do the very best that we can to ensure that the process is credible, although we understand the frustration.

The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, asked what would happen in the interim regarding the districts. This matter applies to other unitary authorities in the same position as Cornwall—Shropshire and Wiltshire, for example. In deciding to move the date of the local government elections, we are aware that that will extend the interim period between when the new authorities are established and the elections. On 1 April 2009, all the councils to be abolished, as approved by Parliament earlier in the year, will cease to exist. Their councillors will cease to hold office. Any councillors of abolished authorities who currently sit on the implementation or shadow executives—the bodies responsible for the transition to the new authorities—will continue to be full members of those executives.

In all areas except central Bedfordshire, where the appointed executive that has been leading preparations will become the executive of the new council on 1 April, decisions will need to be taken locally about who will be responsible for the discharge of executive functions for the new council until the election. That will be either the implementation executive or the existing executive of the successor councils. So these decisions are to be made locally.

In order to ensure that there is no perceptible fall-off in the performance of statutory functions during the intervening period, we will shortly be making regulations allowing the new unitary councils to co-opt, where appropriate, some members of outgoing district councils on to the committees of the new councils that exercise licensing or planning functions up until the election. So we have put in place clear transitional arrangements with which everyone is familiar and which they have been working through.

The noble Lords, Lord Greaves and Lord Teverson, argued that this should be put in legislation so that it happens every time that European elections take place. We debated this point during the passage of the 2000 Act, when it was argued that Parliament should be able to consider whether the change should be made in each year that the European elections were due to take place. So there are different opinions about this and different potential merits in the arguments.

The noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, referred to Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk. The order will move the 2009 election date for those county councils in the way that I have described. I shall not anticipate the debate that we will have when the Boundary Committee reports. We have asked it to advise us of its proposals by 31 December 2008, and we will have that debate when it does so.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, asked specifically how parish elections will be affected. The order will move the ordinary day of elections, which will mean that all parish council elections will take place on 4 June 2009. The order creating the new parishes in Restormel provides for elections on the ordinary day of elections, which, again, is 4 June. We are consulting people in Cornwall on the most appropriate local election date, and we will seek views on whether parish elections should also be moved. Our current view is that they should be held in June.

I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, asked me the question that we discussed outside the Chamber concerning the arrangements for returning officers.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister. I was wondering at what stage I should stand up and apologise for forgetting to ask her, but I should now like her to answer that.

My Lords, as I have a very fine answer on that, I shall not be denied the opportunity to read it. The noble Lord was going to ask what the arrangements would be for the returning officer for European elections in the new unitary councils. It is a very good question. Our approach is that the local returning officers for the European elections in the new unitary areas will be officers of the new unitary councils. We will shortly bring forward regulations to provide for that. They will set out that new unitary councils, such as Cornwall, must appoint persons to act as returning officers by 30 November this year, and the appointment will be made by the councils’ implementation executives.

The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, asked when the further order for Cornwall will be brought forward. As I said, we will be taking further soundings. We recognise the need for certainty as soon as is practicable. In order to move the date of the local elections further, we will need to bring forward an order in time for it to be in force by 30 April. This points to laying a draft order in the first half of February at the latest, and that is the timetable that we are working to.

I believe that I have answered most, if not all, of the questions that were raised. If I have not, I shall ensure that I do so in writing.

My Lords, I have three points, two of which relate to Article 5. I am slightly disappointed that the Minister only echoed what was said in the other place about it providing clarity for returning officers. It may provide clarity for them, but not for the poor electorate who may not have any representation for seven months. That is where we are. My other point on Article 5 concerned Cornwall and I do not believe the Minister responded to it. Is Cornwall still stuck on 7 November, or are the Government proposing to roll that forward to six or seven months from the date of the proposed election at the end of October? The Minister mentioned, Norfolk, Devon and Suffolk, and she said the dates would change. I presume the Minister meant that the dates would change to the June election date.

My Lords, I am sorry, but I did not think I could improve on what my honourable friend said in the other place. It is not just about the returning officer. I said that it was helpful to everyone involved to know where they were. I do not have to hand the specific answer to his question about whether Article 5 would require moving forward. I hope the noble Earl will forgive me, but I shall have to write to him about that. I am afraid I have forgotten his final point.