House of Lords
Thursday, 30 June 2011.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Birmingham.
Message from His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh
My Lords, I have to inform your Lordships that, pursuant to the order of the House, I, together with the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, the noble Lords, Lord Strathclyde and Lord Brabazon of Tara, the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and the noble Baroness, Lady Royall of Blaisdon, waited upon His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh this morning, with the Message of this House of 8 June, and that His Royal Highness made the following reply:
“My Lords and Members of the House of Commons, I received your kind message of congratulations on my ninetieth birthday with the greatest pleasure. I have derived much satisfaction from the many years that I have been able to help and support the Queen. Few others, if any, have had the satisfaction of witnessing the affection and respect that so many people round the world have shown for the Queen since the beginning of her reign. I acknowledge that the position that I have held has made it possible for me to support and encourage a great many valuable and worthwhile organisations in this country and further afield. It has been a particular pleasure to be associated with so many organisations that have encouraged the development of the younger generation in this country and in the wider world”.
Motion for an Humble Address
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, to return to Her Majesty the thanks of this House for Her Majesty’s most gracious Message, and to assure Her Majesty that this House, always desirous of availing itself of every opportunity to manifest its dutiful attachment to Her Majesty’s Royal Person and Family, will cheerfully concur in all such Measures, as shall be necessary and proper for giving effect to the object of Her Majesty’s Message.
My Lords, perhaps a brief word of explanation would be appropriate at this time. Yesterday, the Queen sent a rare gracious Message to both the House of Commons and to this House to initiate parliamentary consideration of the Civil List and other financial support of the Royal Household. In his comprehensive spending review statement last October, my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer proposed that the Civil List and separate grants in aid to the Royal Household be abolished and a new, single sovereign grant, linked to a percentage of the revenue from the Crown Estate, be established in their place. That is a question of supply and so one which is primarily for the House of Commons.
The Motion I am moving today replies to the Queen’s Message. It indicates that this House will concur in the provision that the Commons proposes, as with previous such Bills. When the Commons sends us the expected Bill I expect that we will follow that precedent and give the Bill a full Second Reading, but then take its remaining stages formally. I hope that that explains the meaning and the purpose behind the humble Address, which I shall now present to the Lord Speaker.
Motion agreed nemine dissentiente.
Banking: Northern Rock
My Lords, on 15 June my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced that a sales process for Northern Rock should commence, following a recommendation from UK Financial Investments. Prospective acquirers will be asked to provide a view on the impact of their acquisition on competition. UKFI also expects prospective acquirers to lay out their plans for the company’s headquarters and branches.
I thank the Minister for that response. Since tabling the Question, I have been visited in this House by representatives of the workforce, whose chairman and organiser came to see me. They are still very worried people, although they appreciate the sympathetic response that the Minister gave on 16 June when this question was originally raised. On the other hand, they are very concerned because of the employment situation there and very keen on mutualisation, which they believe would be much better from the point of view of employment and as far as the community is concerned. Would the Government give serious consideration to that?
My Lords, the Government, through UKFI, will consider all options for the disposal process, including stand-alone remutualisation. However, it is important to recognise that the Chancellor believes that a sales process is most likely to generate the best value for the taxpayer, and that is why that is being explored as the lead option. Of course, the Government are committed to promoting mutuals and we very much welcome bids from mutuals as part of the sales process that is to start.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that the staff of Northern Rock have, in the past three and a half years, done a magnificent job to recover the status of the bank? Does he agree that maintaining a headquarters function for the bank in the north-east of England remains important? In that context, could it be a condition of sale that the Northern Rock Foundation, the largest charity in the north of England, should continue to have support from whoever buys the bank in order to maintain the good work of the Northern Rock Foundation?
My Lords, first of all, it is right that Northern Rock is now a highly liquid and well capitalised strong bank, which is why UKFI has been able to recommend the start of a sales process to the Treasury. Incidentally, for all the very significant reductions in the number of employees that there have been, the bank still has a footprint of some 75 branches—little changed since before the collapse of the bank. As for its commitment to the foundation, the bank has a signed agreement with the foundation, signed in March 2011, under which Northern Rock plc agrees to donate 1 per cent of pre-tax profits to the foundation under a covenant with an initial expiry date of December 2012. It will be very much in the interest of prospective purchasers to make clear, if they want the support of people in the north-east, what their plans are for the headquarters, for their support for the foundation and for other matters.
I wonder whether the noble Lord could show a little more enthusiasm for mutualisation as a most desirable method of organising and purveying financial services. That would give the Government a chance to distance themselves from the sad period of the 1980s, when far too many building societies moved away from mutualisation, with a lot of risky business being pursued thereafter.
I have made clear on this and previous occasions that the Government regard mutualisation as a desirable model. It would be wrong to say that it is the best model, as the noble Lord has suggested, but, indeed, we want to see variety of provision of financial services in this country by organisations with different models, of which mutualisation should be one.
My Lords, the overarching aim of any sales process, as well as getting a clear exit, is to obtain best value for the taxpayer. There are of course tensions between that objective and certain methods of sale, and that is precisely what the experts conducting the sale will assess.
No, I will not confirm that to the noble Lord. The best value will be obtained for the taxpayer by conducting an exemplary sales process that explores all the options out there for the bidders. In the light of a transparent and competitive process, the best value will be obtained.
My Lords, going back to the question of the Northern Rock Foundation, I am certainly no expert on the sale of banks but I know how important the foundation is in the north-east. I was slightly troubled by what the Minister said about the commitment that has been made so far, because it appears to be a very short date. Could he perhaps be a little more enthusiastic, to use the word used by my noble friend Lord Borrie, about the importance of the foundation and put it more firmly on the agenda when it comes to issues of sale?
My Lords, I am sorry if I cannot work up enough enthusiasm at 11am on a Thursday morning. The first thing to say is that not only has the foundation done good work in the north-east but its footprint covers Cumbria. We must not forget Cumbria. The previous Government agreed that Northern Rock would donate £15 million per annum to the foundation for a three-year period, 2008-10, and that commitment was honoured. Yes, the new agreement has an initial expiry date of December 2012, as I said, but it has the potential for a rolling one-year extension by mutual consent, to be agreed under certain terms. The door is open there, and it will be one of the things that I am sure prospective purchasers will want to take into account.
EU: Polish Presidency
My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government engage with the Polish Government at all levels. These meetings are opportunities to discuss a range of issues and occur at both ministerial and official levels. Prior to, and during, the Polish presidency, the Poles have outlined their priorities as being divided into three general themes: European integration as the source of growth; a secure Europe in terms of food, energy and defence; and Europe benefiting from openness.
I thank my noble friend for that Answer. In view of the Energy Secretary’s disappointment about the Polish Government’s refusal last Tuesday to accept the 20 per cent target for emissions by 2020, will my noble friend confirm that Poland is willing to accept a compromise solution to this unexpected problem during its presidency period?
We shall have to see how this works out. Obviously, there are a lot of elements in this debate as we move forward to a new energy mix and the energy transition throughout Europe. Poland will play a leading part in that, whether or not it accepts the immediate renewables targets, because it is seeking to change its own economy away from a heavy coal base and a reliance on Russian gas to a more modern mixture of energy developments. That will include renewables and, possibly, the major development of shale gas and other unconventional gas sources.
Will the Minister confirm that if there is some spare time in his meetings with the Polish presidency he might ask it to explain precisely its budget proposals, which are attracting so much media and political attention? Can he confirm that there are currently no budget proposals other than a seven-year financial perspective; that the 5 per cent increase in the budget that is being talked about is 5 per cent over seven years, the duration of the perspective; and that, in any event, a financial perspective is a ceiling which cannot be exceeded, not a target to be reached?
Obviously this issue will come up in the dialogue that we have with Poland on the budget, which has continued in the past on a number of areas. The proposals for the next multi-annual financial framework are issued today, so it seems pretty pointless to speculate ahead of that. We are focused on areas in which we can co-operate and work together. I take the noble Lord’s point that there are difficult challenges ahead, and we will certainly discuss them with Poland.
My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware of reports that Poland has initiated direct chartered flights to the northern part of Cyprus? If there are to be discussions, will he ask how Poland has managed this when, in the past seven years, every other country including ours has said that it is illegal to do so? Neither we nor other member states have been able to honour the promise that was given to Turkish Cypriots to end their isolation; I would be interested to hear how Poland has managed to do so.
I am not sure that I can tell my noble friend very much more. She raises an issue relating to the Ankara protocols and the question of Turkey’s negotiations on the European Union, which are proceeding although slowly. The problem of northern Cyprus has been, sadly, an obstacle in the way of developments in Turkey’s application to join the European Union, which we of course strongly support. I am afraid that I cannot tell my noble friend more on the detail of what has been decided by the Polish authorities about their own airline flights, but I will write to her if I find any more information.
Have the Government yet had the opportunity of discussing with the Polish Government the provisions of the European Union Bill, and explaining to them that no less than 56 instances could spark a referendum in this country? If they have done that, could he tell us what their reaction was?
We have certainly discussed the European Union Bill with all our European partners in various ways. We have not raised with them the noble Lord’s proposition, because it is completely inaccurate and does not represent any aspect of that Bill. The whole idea of there being 56 items which could initiate a referendum is complete nonsense. These are 56 veto elements in four or five absolutely key areas, which the noble Lord, as a supporter of the previous Government, believed are important just as the rest of the British people do today.
These matters remain under constant discussion. Everyone recognises that the common agricultural policy continues to have its flaws and challenges, given the ways in which it promotes exports out of Europe at great expense to poorer countries and farming communities. We will certainly discuss all these matters on a continuous basis.
Will the Minister confirm what the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, said, which was confirmed by Commissioner Viviane Reding this morning on the “Today” programme, that the MFF stretching from 2014 to 2020 is a 5 per cent increase over that seven-year period, and should not be understood to be an annual increase?
This is very recent news. Initial reactions have not been favourable in other countries or this one, where we are thinking in terms of austerity in order to promote sound budget discipline and the basis for sound recovery without soaring interest rates and other deterrents. I cannot add more beyond the initial reaction that these things will be looked at very carefully indeed. The spirit of common austerity practices by the European Union in all its parts as well as the member state countries will have to be reflected.
Republic of Ireland and the Commonwealth
My Lords, the Republic of Ireland’s interest in rejoining the Commonwealth is a matter for the Irish Government and, of course, for the existing Commonwealth membership.
I thank the Minister for that Answer. May I take this opportunity of congratulating Her Majesty and the President of Ireland on a very successful royal visit to the Republic of Ireland? In the light of this outstanding success, do the Government agree that it is important to build on the results of the visit in a constructive way so as further to improve relations within these islands and between the two parts of Ireland? In particular, do the Government agree that if Ireland, as an independent republic, was to rejoin the Commonwealth, or have a new association with the Commonwealth, this would be calculated to be of benefit to Ireland, and more particularly greatly improve relations between the divided communities in Ireland?
I agree 100 per cent with the noble Lord’s remarks about the enormously successful state visit, which has no doubt struck a very positive chord and gives great hope to all of us who are familiar with and wish to see ameliorated and put in the past the great problems of Ireland of the past few hundred years. The noble Lord is absolutely on the right track there. However, I have to reiterate that the initiative on which he is questioning me—membership of the Commonwealth—really is a matter for the Irish Government to look at. In many other areas I suspect that the state visit has provided an impetus and a momentum on both sides of the water for new initiatives to bring the Republic of Ireland and all aspects of the United Kingdom still closer together. They are our good friends and we are theirs.
In encouraging movement in the direction suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Rana, may I remind my noble friend of the very different example of the great success with which the former communist Portuguese colony of Mozambique has become a fully fledged member of the Commonwealth, with great benefit to the Commonwealth as well as to Mozambique?
My noble and learned friend’s question gives me the opportunity to observe—I imagine that this will come as no surprise to noble Lords—that the Commonwealth club today is one which many people wish to join and be associated with in all sorts of forms. There is no doubt that, as we move into the 21st century, the particular nature of the Commonwealth, with its linkages, close associations, common elements of trust, understanding and friendship and its capacity to expand trade and investment, is the kind of club which many countries want to join. They look at the example of Mozambique and see a new Commonwealth pattern emerging, not necessarily precisely related to the old question of which countries were members of the British Commonwealth or the British Empire. It is a very successful platform for the 21st century and many other countries are queuing up to join it, which is very flattering.
My Lords, does the noble Lord agree with me that relations between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland have never been better, that Ireland is our closest trading partner and that the contribution made by Irish people, and people of Irish origin, has been of great benefit to this country and is something to be celebrated?
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that during the peace process I approached the leaders of all the political parties in the Republic of Ireland, all of whom said the same thing—that an application from Ireland to rejoin the Commonwealth was unlikely but that if unionists were to request it as part of the peace process it would undoubtedly be deliverable? The unionist parties did not request it so that moment has passed. However, it seems to me that perhaps an application will only follow invitations. Will my noble friend undertake to explore with the Secretary-General and other members of the Commonwealth whether the Irish Republic might be invited as a guest to Commonwealth events, perhaps even the Commonwealth Games, to help move us in a direction whereby it would not have to make an application but would nevertheless be welcomed in?
This is one of the very interesting and exciting approaches that now become possible as our relations have kept improving to their present excellent level. I cannot make any precise promises because, as I said at the beginning, we must expect the signs to come from the Irish Government that that is the way forward, but there is no reason why the Commonwealth Secretariat should not invite any country, including the Republic of Ireland, to be aware of the vast variety of Commonwealth developments, associations and branded activities throughout the globe in which Ireland or any other country may be interested.
My Lords, does the Minister realise that the peoples in both countries in the island of Ireland—in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland—rejoice at the success of the state visit by Her Majesty the Queen to the Republic of Ireland? Secondly, does he accept that, in the case of Mozambique or, more recently, Southern Sudan, a decision to join the Commonwealth was left to the peoples of those countries, not through any encouragement from the United Kingdom? I speak from long experience of politics in Northern Ireland and relations with the Republic of Ireland. Does the Minister accept that any encouragement from the United Kingdom to the Republic of Ireland to join the Commonwealth would be counterproductive?
The noble Lord speaks with much wisdom and experience on these matters. I hope that something of what he said was reflected in my initial comment that any move of this kind must come from the Irish Government and the Irish people in the first instance. As to other countries seeking to join, of course, the ultimate decision is not in the gift of the British Government, it is in the gift of the Commonwealth as a whole—all 54 members. It is interesting that Southern Sudan, which is just about to be born on 9 July, should express the wish to join. Another country has joined the queue of those interested in joining: Gabon. Other countries want to be associated—they may not qualify as members. Our friends in the Gulf are all extremely interested in observer or associate membership if that can be achieved. Countries far outside the original pattern of Commonwealth membership are also very interested in what is going on in the Commonwealth, because it is one of the most exciting and developing platforms and networks of the 21st century.
Banking: Lloyds and RBS Shares
My Lords, UK Financial Investments manages the Government’s shareholding in financial institutions. UKFI’s objective is to dispose of the investments in an orderly and active manner, with an overarching objective of protecting and creating value for the taxpayer. The Treasury and UKFI continue to assess all potential options to realise value for taxpayers through the disposal of these shares.
My Lords, there is a well known saying by a famous American tennis player: “You cannot be serious”. Does the noble Lord himself believe what has been said, given that that would achieve nowhere near best value? If you wanted to have an administrative scheme that was absolute nonsense, you could not find a better one. Given that the Government manage potential sales, is the Minister seriously suggesting that the Chancellor is looking at that proposition? If so, what would be the eventual cost in loss of expected revenue in due course from the sale of Lloyds and RBS shares?
My Lords, what I said is that we are considering all options for the disposal of the shares in RBS and Lloyds Banking Group. My right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister has asked the Treasury to consider a particular disposal option, and that is what UKFI and the Treasury are doing.
Will my noble friend tell the Treasury that there is no need to consider this tired old suggestion for long? It was fully considered in 1979 when we embarked on the original privatisation programme and I am sure that his officials will be very pleased to give him all the old papers showing that it bristles with practical difficulties, not least the precise method of allocation, quite apart from the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Barnett. Will my noble friend also bear in mind the wise words of that great radical, Thomas Paine:
“What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly”.
On the one hand, I might say to my noble friend that sometimes the old ideas are the best ones and it is good to dust them off. I recognise that the idea of free distribution of shares is not new but it is perfectly serious. However, the difficulties that my noble friend rightly puts up and some of the questioning from the noble Lod, Lord Barnett, are issues that must be properly considered.
My Lords, noble Lords will be aware that the Government have promised to set up a green bank with a capital of £3 billion. Does the noble Lord agree that a more constructive version of the Deputy Prime Minister’s suggestion might be to sell the shares in Lloyds TSB and RBS, as convenient, and use part of the cash thus raised to increase the capitalisation of the green bank? If in addition the bank was allowed to borrow, could that not be a powerful instrument for economic recovery and long-term development by mobilising shares for which there is no present business use?
My Lords, bearing in mind the immense damage that the Government’s fiscal policy is doing to the economy, is not the explanation of the hare-brained scheme from the leader of the Liberal Democrats simply an attempt by the Government to distract the public’s attention from that damage?
My Lords, I do not know what constitutes language that is not permissible in this House but I do not accept one iota of that analysis. The reason why we have an enormous monetary stimulus through the interest rates—last night, 10 years were at 3.33 per cent—is precisely because we are sticking to the plan to reduce the deficit. Otherwise nothing else would be possible in terms of growth for the economy. Indeed, one of the potential downsides of handing shares out free is that it would have a negative effect on the public finances, which is one of the issues that must be considered.
Would the Minister accept that technology has moved on since 1979 and whatever might have been in the papers at the time in terms of doing something then is wholly irrelevant to the costs of doing something today? Can he see the strength of the argument that once the Treasury has its money back, best value for the British people might best be served by giving them some cash in their pockets to decide for themselves the best way of spending the upside of the privatisation of the banks?
Of course I agree with my noble friend that IT has progressed significantly over the past couple of decades, but that does not mean to say that it would be easy to create an IT database of the sort that would be required for this operation. While that is one of the issues to be considered, there are other questions—of distribution, of the impact on the banks’ own funding, of share overhangs and so on. All of these things would have to be looked at.
Standing Orders (Public Business)
Motion on Standing Orders
Standing Order 22 (Leave of absence)
After paragraph (3) insert:
“(3A) At the start of each session of Parliament the Clerk of the Parliaments may in writing ask any Lord Temporal not on leave of absence, suspended or otherwise disqualified from attending the House, who in the previous session attended the House very infrequently, whether he wishes to apply for leave of absence for the remainder of the Parliament.
(3B) Any Lord who fails to reply to a letter sent by the Clerk of the Parliaments pursuant to paragraph (3) or (3A) above within three months from the date the letter was sent shall be granted leave of absence for the remainder of the Parliament."
In paragraph (4), delete “is expected not to” and insert “should not”.
In paragraph (5), delete “is expected to” and insert “should”.
In paragraph (5), delete “one month” and insert “three months”.
After paragraph (5) insert:
“(5A) In applying the provisions of this Standing Order the Clerk of the Parliaments may seek the advice of the Leave of Absence Sub-Committee of the Procedure Committee.”
Committee (4th Day)
Relevant documents: 15th and 16th Reports from the Delegated Powers Committee.
Clause 42 : Duty to hold local referendum
120A: Clause 42, page 37, line 25, at end insert “, and
(c) if the petition is a special-case petition (see section (Petitions: special cases in which holding of referendum is discretionary)), the authority resolves in accordance with section 48 that the referendum should be held.”
My Lords, we now return to the debates which we had the other evening in Committee on the new extension of community empowerment through the role of referendums. Perhaps I may begin by returning to Tuesday evening and the brief discussion that we had right at the end on the issue raised by my noble friend Lord Greaves. He asked—and I called it a conundrum—why a petition signed by 5 per cent of the people calling for a referendum should prevail over a petition signed by 10 per cent or even 20 per cent against one. At first reaction, and at that late hour, it appeared a complex question. I have since reflected on the issue.
It seems complex because it is founded on what I might describe as a false premise—that is, that having a referendum is in itself the final decision on an issue. It is not. Having a referendum is merely a way of opening the door to obtaining the views of local people. In the particular circumstance described by my noble friend, there is clearly a difference of view among local people; and where a number of people—we think 5 per cent is about right, as we discussed on Tuesday—want to have that view tested in a referendum, we think that they should be allowed to do so.
So my short answer to my noble friend's conundrum is simply this. If 5 per cent want the issue tested in a referendum, then we believe that it should be tested. That is not denying choice to others. They can express their view in the referendum. As I made clear in my response to all this, it is within the defined scheme; and that is that unless there is a petition, the full council must agree to hold a referendum; and where there is a petition, the council must hold it if it meets the appropriate tests on costs, appropriateness, and duplication, which we will discuss in this group. These tests enable local authorities to exercise discretion and not to hold a referendum.
Now I turn to these government amendments, to which I alluded the other evening and which I think greatly help this debate to go forward. Government Amendments 120A, 120D, 120F, 121A, 126G, 128E, 128F, 128G and 129J all deal with the issue of the grounds for an authority to decline to hold a referendum, notwithstanding the receipt of a petition with the requisite number of signatures. These amendments address concerns raised during the passage of the Bill in another place that local referendums could be very costly or otherwise inappropriate. Such concerns were also expressed by the Greater London Authority and Transport for London.
Members in another place also expressed concern that the Secretary of State exercising his power in Clause 47 to specify matters that need not trigger a local referendum could result in a council rejecting a valid petition for a referendum on a manifestly local matter. Having considered these concerns, the Government accept that, in line with our localist agenda, removal of the Secretary of State's power of specification in Clause 47 will not remove any necessary protections in the referendums scheme. If the amendments we have tabled are accepted, councils will have the power to determine whether a referendum should be held in difficult cases.
There are circumstances in which a referendum could be inappropriately expensive for a council or could cut across or effectively duplicate other statutory consultation processes for which there is also a statutory right to review or appeal. This would include planning applications. We therefore propose to remove the power of specification in Clause 47(5) and replace it with provisions that give councils increased flexibility to decline to hold a referendum in special cases. Those cases, defined as “special case petitions”, are where: first, the cost of holding the referendum would be more than 5 per cent of the council's council tax requirement for that year; the referendum matter has been the subject of a previous referendum within the previous four years in that area; or the referendum relates to a matter subject to other statutory consultation processes for which there is a right to review or appeal. I have already given the example of planning applications. These provisions reflect our view that councils should be able to refuse referendums that are unduly costly or are on substantively the same issue as a previous referendum. They also reflect our view that the mechanism for local referendums should not duplicate or cut across existing statutory processes.
Where it is proposed that a referendum should be held across the whole of London, we want to be sure that the matter is truly a pan-London issue—as I explained the other evening to the noble Lord, Lord Beecham. We therefore propose a requirement that for a petition to be eligible for such a referendum, in addition to the 5 per cent threshold of London-wide signatures it should have the signatures of 1 per cent of the electorate in each London borough. This would prevent a situation where a matter of vital importance to just one part of the capital might attract a very large number of signatures to a petition—enough to reach the 5 per cent threshold across London—yet would be more appropriate for a referendum in the London borough or boroughs where the affected citizens live.
I hope noble Lords will agree that these amendments address some concerns that are raised by amendments in later groups and will feel able to agree them. This will colour the debates that follow. I will address other amendments once they have been moved.
My Lords, I have one amendment in this group—Amendment 128EZA—that I will speak to. I will not speak to Amendment 128A in the group. I spent some time last night and this morning trying to liberate it from the group but failed miserably. I am now degrouping it, and it will come back in the group that starts with Amendment 126A. I hope that that does not cause the Minister too much difficulty.
I thank the Minister for dealing with such seriousness this morning with the question I asked at the very end of our proceedings on Tuesday. It was a cheeky question, but it is nevertheless one that people will ask because it is a fairly obvious cheeky question. I am grateful to him for dealing with it. It does, in many ways, underline some of the things that are wrong with the whole of this provision.
However, I welcome the main substantive amendment that the noble Lord has just introduced in this group—Amendment 128E, on what are known as “special-case petitions”, which are petitions where for various reasons the council will be able to decide not to have a referendum. I think that the phrase “special-case petition” is in some ways symptomatic of some of the things that are wrong with the Bill. What is a special-case petition? I can just imagine somebody spending a lot of time and effort getting a petition together and presenting it to the council for a referendum and one of the council officials ringing the organiser and saying that it had been classified as a special-case petition. The petition organiser will say, “Oh—thank you very much indeed. That sounds good”. The official will say, “No, it’s not. It means that you cannot have a referendum”. It is not a sensible name and I hope that the Government think of a name that actually describes the process and the fact that the petition will not be carried out. It could be called an invalid petition, for example, or something similar.
The proposed new clause on special-case petitions includes the provision:
“The petition is a special-case petition if the proper officer of the authority is of the opinion that the matter to which the referendum question relates has been, or has substantially been, the subject of at least one local or other referendum held—
(a) in the four years ending with the date on which the petition was received by the authority, and
(b) in the area to which the petition relates (whether or not in that area alone)”.
Therefore, there are two qualifying provisions for the authority to be able to say that it will not have the petition. One is that there has been one in the last four years and the other is that it took place in the area to which the petition relates.
I shall speak to an amendment on the second of those. Before I do, however, I have another amendment, which is bound up with some other stuff, that proposes that the period during which there should be a moratorium on holding a new referendum on the same or similar issue should be 10 years, not four. I will not be pressing that heavily when we get to it because at least we have a four-year moratorium here. Nevertheless, it seems to me that four years is not long enough. It will still be quite easy for people to bring back the same thing every four years and it will become very repetitive and they could keep going until they get the right answer.
I speak now to Amendment 128EZA, which would insert the words,
“or part of the area”,
where it reads,
“in the area to which the petition relates”;
so it would read,
“in the area or part of the area to which the petition relates (whether or not in that area alone)”.
It is quite clear that what the Minister has moved means that if there has been a petition in an identical area it qualifies as a special case and if there has been a petition in a bigger area, which includes the area of the petition, it qualifies as a special case. It is not clear what will happen if the new petition is in area larger than the area that previously had the petition. For example, let us imagine that there is a town with four wards. If there was a petition in a ward, and then the petition came along for the county electoral division, which might include two of those wards, the area would be twice as big. All the Minister is proposing at the moment is that it should have been substantially in the same area. I do not know what “substantially” means, except that it is quite clear that if they managed to find an area for a petition that was 10 per cent greater, it would probably qualify as a special case. But does it qualify as a special case if the area is twice or three times as big? What is to prevent people coming back with a steadily larger area if they do not get the result that they want in the first place? They might have a petition for a referendum in a ward, then in two wards, then in a county division that includes three wards, and so on. They might have these petitions every year until they get the result they are after. That is the question underlying this amendment.
While we are on Amendment 128E on special-case petitions, I have two more points. One is about the council tax requirement. I am one of the few people in your Lordships' House who does not understand local government finance in great detail, but I know that there are great experts here. What is meant by the phrase “council tax requirement”? Exactly what that means has a bearing on the meaning of the proposal that the Minister is putting forward in subsection (2), which he explained when he moved the amendment. I will not say anything more on that until I have heard what a council tax requirement means and decide whether I want to pursue it further.
Subsection (4) of the new clause is about not having a referendum if there is a statutory process and that statutory process includes giving members of the public an opportunity to make representations on the matter as well as statutory rights of appeal or to instigate a review. This is extremely welcome. It clearly refers to the planning system. It obviously refers to planning applications. I assume that it applies to local plan making because that includes a whole series of public consultations. It almost certainly applies to all licensing matters, so we are not going to have petitions on whether Joe Bloggs should get a taxi licence or whether a particular shop should get an off-licence licence. Do the Government have any sort of definitive list, or a greater list, of the sort of things that might be caught by this provision, or have they got further than planning and licensing in their thoughts on the matter? It will be extremely helpful if they have an idea of more or less the full list. We can probably never have a completely full list.
I look forward to the Minister’s response to my amendment and to the questions that I have asked.
My noble friend remarked on new subsection (4) and the barrier against presenting any petition relating to planning matters. Knowing the strength of feeling against Gypsy sites in most localities in England, we can envisage that if people can conceivably find a way of lodging petitions against anything to do with a proposal for a Gypsy site, they will do so. I was quite relieved to hear what he said, but is it his opinion that new subsection (4) provides adequate safeguards against that kind of petition which would be unnecessary because the protection, if needed, is provided by the planning process?
My Lords, I am not sure that it is my job to give a definitive view of what the legislation means. Anybody can put forward a petition on anything. When planning applications come in, people often present petitions on planning applications and they are perfectly entitled to do so, whether or not my noble friend and I agree with what is on the petition—that is nothing to do with it. The point is that this is a provision for a petition that triggers a referendum. As I understand it, what the Minister is proposing would prevent a referendum having to be held on a planning application while the planning application is being considered, which would obviously not only be stupid but would cause such huge delays in the planning system that the whole thing would fall apart.
I am going to intervene very briefly. First, I apologise to the House for not having been involved in this long and very complex Bill before. I am intervening now because I am a member of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which met yesterday to look at this Bill. We have a real problem with this incredibly complex Bill, and with many amendments coming forward, in understanding the full implications of some of the sections. I want to refer to some aspects of the report which is out this morning as a result of the meeting we had yesterday. Two of the sections relate both to petitions and hybridity and to referendums. I am not sure that they strictly apply to the Minister’s new clause but they apply in general on the issue of referendums.
In his opening comments the Minister agreed the possibility of a local authority being able to decide whether it wants to hold a referendum, which is fine. However, in paragraph 31 on page 9 of the committee’s report we recommend that regulations under Section 9MG of the 2000 Act, which is added in the Bill—they relate to,
“the conduct of elections and referendums the results of which have significant legal effect”,
and we had quite a discussion on that yesterday—
“should be subject to affirmative procedure”.
I am sure that the Government will consider that in the usual way. Given that we only had an opportunity to look at this yesterday, it is quite difficult to get this in the precise position.
The other thing I wanted to mention, because it affects petitions and hybridity, is the recommendation in paragraph 29 on page 9 of our report, which refers to the hybrid instruments procedure. It says:
“Given the lack of any statutory requirement to consult before making an order under section 9HF, the Committee is concerned that the disapplication of the hybrid instruments procedure—and thereby the opportunity to petition Parliament—leaves inadequate means to ensure private or local interests are taken into account when the power is exercised”.
We wish to draw that power to the attention of the House, as we do in paragraph 32 to the,
“disapplication of the hybrid instruments procedure by paragraph 77 of Schedule 3 to the Bill, so that the House may satisfy itself that there will be suitable alternative procedures in place”.
I do not wish to delay the House with an issue with which I have not been involved and do not have great knowledge about, but we expressed considerable concern yesterday about some of the powers in this Bill. There are others in our report, but the two I have focused on are, first, the conduct and the effect of referendums where they might have a legal impact. There was considerable discussion on what would happen if it went to court on an appeal. The second was this issue of hybridity. That is not directly relevant to what the Minister has just said but it picks up on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, about petitions. It is an area of which the House needs to be aware and I very much regret that this is all rather rushed from the way the legislation is being put through. My ability to assimilate this enormous Bill in the fewer than 24 hours since the Delegated Powers Committee met yesterday might put me slightly out of the normal amendment procedure, but the two issues have a general impact and I hope that the Minister will take them into account. I know that the Government will respond to the report in the usual way but, speaking as a member of the committee and not on behalf of it, anyone who reads our report—I hope that people will have a chance to look at its main recommendations today even though it is very short notice—will see its considerable importance for this Bill.
My Lords, declaring once again my wife’s interest as a councillor and, I suppose, my interest in my wife, I speak with some diffidence in a House awash with experts with experience of local government in one way or another. I am one of the few without that. All that I want is to ask a question for clarification, which picks up on the questions raised by my noble friend Lord Greaves. It is clear that these amendments are intended to deal to some extent with the concerns expressed about planning and licensing. I should like to be absolutely clear. The new clause on petitions and special cases to be inserted under my noble friend the Minister’s amendment refers to a special-case petition. I am shorthanding and if I am getting it wrong, I expect someone will tell me.
The proposed new clause says that if it is substantially the case, people have,
“a statutory right of appeal in respect of the substance of the … decision, or … a statutory right to instigate a review of the substance of the matter or decision”.
From my experience as an MP, my understanding is that if it is your planning application and it is refused, you have a right of appeal. But if you are the neighbour or the neighbourhood who objected to the planning application and it is granted, you have no right of appeal. Does that mean that if you are the neighbour or the neighbourhood and the planning application is granted on planning grounds, you can now instigate a petition and have a referendum on the granted planning application?
My Lords, I might try to comment on the important points made by my noble friend Lord Newton of Braintree in a moment. It is a complex and important area, on which I expect we will have to have discussions as the Bill proceeds. In the main, I welcome the amendments laid by my noble friends and I am grateful for them in terms of their clarification. I have a number of concerns, which are perhaps not addressed by these proposals.
Since I was in charge of my authority’s finances for some time, it would be alarming if I did not understand the council tax requirement. In my authority the council tax requirement is defined in our budget resolution currently at a little more than £100 million. Therefore, 5 per cent of that sum would be several million pounds. I know that our authority is exceptional in terms of having a heavy requirement on council tax to raise its resources but I do not think that we would find that provision helpful in resisting referendums. I should be grateful if my noble friends would give some consideration to that rather brutal financial reality as the Bill proceeds.
As regards the other elements, the power for a proper officer to determine whether something has substantially been affected and might be the subject of a referendum was a rather localist answer to the points made by my noble friend Lord Greaves. In the light of local circumstances, it is probably reasonable to leave it to the local authority to make that kind of determination and I welcome that wording. Being an arch-localist, I am slightly less fearful of referendums than some other noble Lords in this Committee. Four years may be too long in certain circumstances but I can see nothing in this provision that prevents a local authority from authorising a referendum in less than four years if it wishes to do so. It simply defends the local authority against the vexatious demand to have a referendum more frequently than four years. If I have interpreted it correctly, I would be happy to accept the provision as a welcome offer by the Government and a very useful compromise position.
I have troubled the Committee before on this matter and I am afraid I will trouble it later on it, but I am worried about the way in which this alleged referendum right will operate in those areas of the country that are still subject to regional government—again I declare my interest, as I have done several times in Committee, as leader of a London borough council. This has an inter-relation with the position not in terms of specific, small-scale planning applications, about which my noble friend Lord Newton has raised a point, I believe, but in terms of the planning process determining a planning brief for an area of a borough.
Yesterday I read that the mayor, whom I strongly support and wish to see re-elected, had intervened on a planning proposal by a London borough. I do not wish to comment on that because I do not know the circumstances on either side, but let me give an example with which I am more familiar. There is a strategic site within my borough. For the last year or so, the council has been making strenuous efforts to agree, with local residents, a community brief for that site when it comes up potentially for development. We hope to have that brief adopted by our borough council before too long, subject to a public ballot. It may well be that at a later date, perhaps propelled by a desire for a community infrastructure levy, to promote Crossrail or for some other purpose, another mayor might come along and say, “This is not an appropriate planning brief for this site. We have a regional authority and a regional spatial strategy and we wish to propose a different use for that site”. It might have more housing or less housing on it, more industry or whatever, and that could be put forward. What is the position then of the residents of a London borough in those circumstances, who have laboured to agree a community brief for a large site that may determine the character of that part of their borough? It has been their choice in the spirit of localism for a long period, and then a higher authority, a reasoned authority, says, “No, it is not going to be that way”. Can we have a referendum on that; and, if so, by what mechanism?
I agree with noble Lords who said we do not want to get into having referendums on every planning application; that way lies the road to perdition. However, I believe that there are circumstances such as the one that I have set out where—if we are charting this way towards genuinely giving local people authority over decisions that affect their lives, and the lives of their children in terms of the long-term decisions on the development of a substantial area of a city—it is clear that we must have some mechanism by which people have the right to petition against an authority that is overriding the settled will of the local community. Maybe my noble friends can assure me—not today but perhaps later by correspondence—that there is a mechanism by which my local residents can be insured against the fear of that happening, but I think there are serious potential difficulties. There could be smaller examples. Like my noble friend Lord Greaves, I am not clear on where the boundaries of the statutory right of appeal lie, and the noble Lord, Lord Newton, has obviously raised a point. My residents in this case, with their community brief, would not necessarily have an appeal. What about transport issues or something controversial such as parking? All these things have statutory procedures and provisions for consultation. Where do the bounds lie there? I do not know whether they would be open to petition or not. Again, I do not expect an answer today.
Let me posit another example, a real-life one from another London borough. I was speaking to the leader, who told me that a town centre improvement scheme was proposed by a central London authority after consultation with local residents. The local authority suggested amendments that were supported by the residents in a ballot, but the higher authority, in this case London Buses, came in and said, “No, we don’t agree. We are going to proceed with our original plan”. Do local residents have a chance to petition and say, “Actually, we like our plan rather than the one being proposed by the higher regional authority”? That is a much smaller example than the one of a statutory planning area, but it is a complex area.
I do not seek an answer from my noble friends on these matters today and I do not want them to feel that I am not grateful for the amendments that have been put forward. But there is a serious issue in the Bill in relation to the rights of members of the public living in areas where there is still regional government.
My Lords, I want to make only three points at this stage of the debate. We are here on the fourth day in Committee on this Bill and I have listened to the noble Lord, Lord Soley, with what I have to say is some dismay. I have certainly not had his committee’s report drawn to my attention, so I have not seen it. No doubt it is in the Printed Paper Office nestling among the volumes of other papers for us to pick up. I recognised almost all the papers set out there as things I have already. This is really a question of how the House works. From what the noble Lord said, the committee has made important recommendations, but they will have to be dealt with on Report, once we have had a chance to look at them. I doubt whether amendments could be tabled, debated and approved in the remaining days of the Committee stage. This does seem to be something that the House authorities might like to take note of. I appreciate the difficulty of the committee, faced with this huge Bill from another place. It had its Second Reading and we then moved fairly smartly into the Committee stage. However, this is not a very satisfactory way of proceeding. We ought to have had those recommendations before we started the Committee stage, but we did not, although I understand that it is no fault of the committee.
My second point is that, in welcoming the amendments that have been tabled by my noble friends, I should like to say particularly how much I appreciate the way the Government have listened to the representations made in another place about the question of a petition that might be called for by the Greater London Authority. The suggestion they have come up with, that there needs to be a 1 per cent vote in every London borough before the GLA has to call a referendum, is a wise one. As my noble friends have suggested, it will prevent a fuss in a particular area, one that might arouse considerable public opposition, forcing the GLA to hold a referendum at huge cost—estimated at somewhere between £5 million and £12 million depending on whether it happens on the same day as another election. The Government’s suggestion that a 1 per cent vote in every borough would trigger the obligation to consider whether a referendum should be held therefore seems absolutely right.
My third point arises from representations that I have had—I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Best, will be interested in this—from the Local Government Association. Noble Lords may remember that, on the second day of Committee on 23 June, I expressed some dismay that the opportunity had not been taken in the Bill to follow through the general power of competence, which Clause 1 gives to local authorities, by substantially lightening the burden of central direction on them. I said during my brief remarks then that both the London Councils—I declare an interest as a joint president—and the Local Government Association, of which I am a vice-president, had said, “Yes, Patrick, we agree but it would be an entirely different kind of Bill”. I remarked in my speech on the difficulty of trying to amend the Bill to try to remove some of what I see as retaining an over-complex power for central government to tell local authorities what to do and how to behave. Giving a general power of competence requires trusting the local authorities to do things in a sensible way. They are accountable to their local electorate if they do not.
I think that the Local Government Association saw that as a bit of a challenge. It has produced for me a list of amendments designed to return to local authorities the responsibility for deciding when and how to conduct a referendum. That is the good side. Unfortunately, somehow I only received that yesterday afternoon when I was engaged on other business. By the time I was able to turn my attention to the e-mail from the Local Government Association, it was clear that we were already too late. I will make the case that the LGA has decided on and give notice that I may wish to return to these matters on Report.
The LGA makes the point, just as I did on the second day in Committee, that it seems absurd in this day and age that central government should retain such an overwhelming control over how local authorities continue to manage their business. It draws attention in particular to Part 4, Chapter 1 of the Bill and the whole question we have discussed of holding a referendum. The LGA says:
“This section of the Bill is symptomatic of the difficulty Whitehall has had in translating Ministers’ localist ideas into legislation. Instead of freeing local people, and their councils, to decide how best local consultation and challenge should take place, the Bill lays down an extremely prescriptive process, managed from the centre, determining exactly how localism should work on the ground”.
I have every sympathy with that sentiment. My only regret is that, like the report of the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Soley, it has come to me rather late. There will be another opportunity and, as I said, I will want to raise the matter again.
I shall want in particular to ask that it should be the local council rather than the Secretary of State who determines the threshold for a petition to trigger a referendum and that the Bill should allow the local council rather the Secretary of State to determine whether a petition or a signature thereon is acceptable—and decide what is a local matter.
That is spelt out in the Bill as something that the Secretary of State has to determine, not the council, which strikes me as being little short of absurd.
I want also to see the local council, rather than the Secretary of State, determine the conduct of its referendum, including choosing the date and deciding how to publicise it, who is eligible to vote, how votes are counted and so on. Are the councils not capable of doing that? There may be some that will fall short but so be it: if we are serious about localism and about pushing decisions down from central government to the local level, we have to trust the local authorities to deal with that. I am much encouraged by seeing nods all round the Chamber and I am only sorry that, because of the late arrival of these suggestions, we are not able to discuss them on specific amendments this afternoon.
I will want to return to this matter. The Local Government Association has now risen to the challenge that I threw out at Second Reading and produced proposals which would involve removing quite large elements from this part of the Bill in order to make sure that it is local councils that decide how they are going to run their own affairs, not the Secretary of State.
My Lords, I associate myself very much with all three substantive points that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, has made. On his last point, I, too, received the briefing from the Local Government Association and was a little puzzled to see that it was dated 20 June but it arrived with me, and indeed with him, yesterday afternoon. The noble Lord is right, but I cannot help recalling a little ruefully that a few years back, I was a council leader and he was the Secretary of State responsible for local government. I wish he had spoken in those terms in those days, but better late than never.
If my noble friend would allow me, I have already expressed my contrition. I did so at Second Reading, when I mentioned how I failed to persuade the senior officers in a conference of chief executives that the Government were entirely justified. I did not convince them, mainly because I could not convince myself.
The noble Lord is forgiven: blessed is the sinner that repenteth. He is absolutely right in what he says. I, too, was looking at this briefing—I was in fact in Brussels until this morning and looked at it coming back—which, like the noble Lord, makes the point:
“The most ironic example of this is the power in Clause 44(6) for the Secretary of State to state what constitutes a local matter”.
That is so absurd that it is just laughable. The noble Lord and this briefing are both saying that if we were to do all of this, and I suspect a bit more too, we might have something that could be called a Localism Bill. That is what this is about. If he chooses to return to this at a later stage, we will certainly be sympathetic to that.
My original intention in standing up was on the second point from the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, and, for once, to congratulate and be thankful to the Government for their amendments on the pan-London referendum. Perhaps I speak as a London taxpayer as well. He made the points, so I will not repeat them, but the proposals are clearly both necessary and very sensible and it is very welcome that we will now have a sensible provision. Should there ever be a pan-London referendum, it will not be called because of some probably serious issue in some part of London that does not apply to the whole of London. By making this provision, such a referendum will truly be on a pan-London issue, as it should be.
My Lords, I, too, remember the noble Lord in his days as Secretary of State for the Environment. He was also chairman of the inner-city partnership team that met in Newcastle and I remember amusing him once by referring to the city action teams he was intent on imposing in our city, and I think in others, as feral cats. He liked that phrase and I liked what the noble Lord said today, particularly in relation to the Delegated Powers Committee report. It is interesting that it was compiled in such a hurry that the title of the printed document is the “Localsim” Bill report. I do not think that it has any connection with telephony. It is certainly very late and I congratulate my noble friend Lord Soley on managing to master as much of it as he apparently has. I have only just seen it this morning.
I agree with the thrust of the noble Lord’s argument about centralism and too much central prescription. I do not entirely agree that it would be wise and safe to leave some of the structure entirely in the hands of local councils. Most local councils would perform perfectly adequately and properly, but we need to consider that there may be some councils which would choose not to develop a proper procedure and we need to protect the interests of those in those authorities. That, in my view, should not be done by the Government, but the Local Government Association itself should perhaps produce a model against which councils’ performance could be judged. That is the local government family, as it were, assuming responsibility, as opposed to the Secretary of State, and it strikes me that, in this and perhaps other areas, that might be a better way forward.
The noble Lord, Lord True, referred to areas with regional governments. Of course, thanks to the present Government’s “settled determination”, in the phrase of the noble Lord, to abolish all regional structures except that in London—it is only London that is privileged to have a regional body, although it is a privilege that the noble Lord may not be too comfortable with—it is probably right to encourage and facilitate petitions for the kind of issues that the noble Lord referred to, rather than referendums, in the same way that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, answered the question put to him earlier.
Having said all that, I thank and congratulate the Government for responding so constructively to so many of the points that have been raised around these issues. It is very welcome. I particularly celebrate the removal of Clause 47(5), which stipulated that the third ground for determination was,
“that the referendum question related to a matter specified by order by the Secretary of State”.
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, I think, tabled an amendment to that effect and the Minister has adopted it, if not him. That is also very welcome.
My last point relates to the strange provision about the cost of a referendum. The noble Lord, Lord True, referred to the figure of around £1 million as representing about 5 per cent of the council tax requirement of his authority. I believe that it is roughly the same—the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, may recall and confirm, or otherwise—in Newcastle. There will be many authorities where 5 per cent is an enormous amount of money. If an authority presented and circulated petitions inscribed in gold leaf on vellum, it would still not reach 5 per cent of most councils’ expenditure. It seems a ridiculous figure. I wonder whether a decimal point has been missed somewhere—the printers have clearly had difficulties with the Bill, as I have already indicated. Five per cent seems extraordinary and I wonder whether any proper estimate has been made—or any estimate at all—by the Government, or those advising them, about what the cost of a referendum, perhaps on a city-wide basis, or district council basis, to take a lower level, would be. It may be that, if we are going to have guidance of this kind, differential provision ought to be made according to the size of the authority; perhaps something on a per capita basis, rather than on a percentage of revenue.
If we are to have a cap, as it were, of a percentage kind, should that relate to an individual referendum, or cumulatively? If there were a large number of referendums in the authority of the noble Lord, Lord True, or in mine, or in any other, one could reach even the high figure. I do not ask the Minister to respond to that thought, which has only just occurred to me—I cannot expect him to answer that—but it might be considered when he looks again, as I hope he will agree to do, at this provision. I welcome the provision; it is right that there should be some consideration of a financial limit by an officer—rather than a member in this case—but the one suggested seems to have little justification and little relationship to reality on the ground.
My Lords, this has been an interesting debate and I take it as a general welcome for the Government’s amendments. A number of interesting points have been raised which probe again at the boundaries of the referendum principle. Noble Lords are right to point to the balance between the Secretary of State and local authorities, but on examination they will discover that the powers of the Secretary of State are residual powers, usually to modify arrangements as a result of experience, rather than to impose a pattern of governance on local authorities throughout the Bill. However, some forms, some articulation of the form of referendums and suchlike are in legislation, because Parliament exists to ensure that, in the context of a citizen’s relationship with a local authority, there are certain rights. If a referendum is considered to be something which citizens can combine collectively to seek, those rights need to be established in law and it is Parliament’s job to establish them in law. I ask noble Lords to differentiate between the two things.
It was said—in jest, I hope—that the Secretary of State was empowered to decide what was local. If noble Lords had looked at our amendments, they would know that our amendment removes that power from the Secretary of State. My noble friend Lord Jenkin asked whether we can leave it to local authorities to decide when and how to conduct referendums. I have made the point about the protection of the citizen within local government. We could, of course, leave it to local authorities, but localism is about more than empowering local authorities, it is also about empowering people. This part of the Bill enables local people to require a referendum, but contains some sensible safeguards to combat abuse. I hope that my noble friend will be able to see the Government’s position in that context.
I, too, received the Local Government Association briefing asking me to table some amendments and to speak in its support—it is very wide in its mailings. However, that was drawn up before the Government’s amendments were known, so some of its criticisms—it generally welcomed many of the provisions of the Bill in this area—were made without the advantage that we now have of knowing what the Government’s proposals are.
My noble friend Lord Greaves asked whether the Government have a list of things that would be caught. My noble friend Lord True also wondered about this, but said that he hoped local authorities would be empowered to decide what was covered under those statutory applications. Under the approach that we have taken, it would be for councils to decide. We have no list. Amendments in a later group illustrate just how difficult such a list would be to apply. It is up to local authorities to decide what is excluded under the special case provisions.
My noble friend Lord Greaves asked whether a petition would qualify as a special case if it covered a large area. Yes, it would. The council would be able to refuse such a petition under the provisions as drafted. He also asked what “substantially” meant. I can give him only a quasi-legalistic answer: it means more than incidentally. I hope that that helps him in his appreciation of that.
I am sorry, the noble Lord is asking me to do his remembering for him. I have enough of a job to remember what I am supposed to be doing myself, if I might say so. Perhaps I may continue.
The noble Lord, Lord Soley, talked about the reports of the Delegated Powers Committee. In fact, some of the points that he made were in an earlier report, published on 16 June. However, there is now another report—indeed, the ink is scarcely dry on it; it is rubbing off on my hands here—about these matters. I reassure the noble Lord that in general terms we take the opinions of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee seriously, and it is likely that we will respond positively to its suggestions and observations. I hope that the committee will accept that.
On the regulations in new Section 9MG about the conduct of referendums for mayoral elections, those referendums are binding, which is why they are rather different from referendums conducted under these provisions, which are not binding on local authorities.
The noble Lord is quite right; I remember what it was now. I was so carried out away by the Minister’s rhetoric that it cleared my mind.
The Minister said, rightly, that these decisions should be the responsibility of the local authority if we are to be localist. As he said, though, it clearly says in subsection (4) of his long new amendment about special case petitions that it is a statutory process by which there is a statutory right to appeal or to instigate a review. Surely it is not the job of a local authority to decide what is a statutory matter. A statutory matter is set out in law, so there might be a bit of interpretation to take place but by and large the local authority’s hands would be tied.
If I remember correctly, my noble friend asked me if the Government had a list of these things. The truth of the matter is that we do not. It will be up to local authorities to determine at the time whether something is caught under this provision.
That brings me on to the whole business of a statutory right of appeal or review. My noble friend Lord Newton asked about this provision. The existence of a right of appeal means that a petition would be a special case petition—it is not relevant who has the right of appeal or review. The Government are satisfied that there is adequate opportunity for all people affected by planning applications to contribute their view. To be clear about this, the Bill does not give a right to a referendum on planning applications.
My noble friend Lord True was particularly concerned about the council tax requirement. He mentioned the large local authority budget that he is responsible for. The whole point of the council tax requirement was to provide some protection for the smaller authority. We were concerned, rightly, that the costs should not be disproportionate to the budget, and that is why that provision was made. It is not a cap or an upper limit on how much can be spent on a referendum, but it means that no local authority should be subject to a disproportionate proportion of its budget being spent on any one referendum.
I was asked about the whole business of planning briefs and indicative planning. My noble friend Lord True kindly suggested that I might write to him and other noble Lords on this issue. It is probably a good thing that I do so, defining the nature of this general view of that planning applications are in fact subject to the special case treatment. There is the question of indicative plans and planning briefs, and I would like to make the position on those absolutely clear.
My noble friend asked how referendum schemes will operate in areas where there is regional government. The Government are committed to abolishing regional spatial strategies. I have already set out the details of how our amendments will ensure that London-wide referendums will take place only on true London planning issues.
I have explained to the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, my point about the cap. We have some information about what we estimate to be the cost of a referendum. Our impact assessment estimates the cost to be between approximately 50p and £1.50 per voter, depending on whether or not it is held with an election. I think that I have covered the questions raised.
I am grateful to the Minister for that information. Would he consider the issue of a per capita amount rather than this very large limit—not a large percentage, but in cash terms—that would have to be breached in order for there to be reason not to hold a special referendum?
That is a suggestion that we would like to consider. It is the spirit of this Committee that we appreciate approaches that are different from the text of the Bill and might define things better. I am happy to consider that matter and I thank the noble Lord for the idea.
Before my noble friend sits down and the experts start coming in, I welcome the clarity of his statement about planning applications, leaving aside the more complex high-level issues raised by my noble friend Lord True. Thinking back on my time as an MP, I see that it would sometimes have been very pleasing to have been able to point constituents aggrieved by the granting of an application in the direction of a petition. Looking at it objectively, though, I am bound to say that the whole area of the application of planning policy would turn into a nightmare world, so I very much welcome the clarity of what has been said.
I again apologise. I would not normally come back on this issue, but it is very important. The job of the Members of this House and of the House of Commons is to hold the Executive to account. I had a note put into my hands a few moments ago from Hansard saying:
“Please may we have sight of the report you quoted from”.
The note then says in brackets:
“(The copy from the Printed Paper Office finishes on page 8 with section 25)”.
Of course, I was quoting from clauses after that. I picked up the papers just before Questions finished. This means that anybody else who came into the House for this debate this morning probably would not have got a copy of that report; here I am grateful for the comments and support of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin. It is hard to hold the Executive to account if Members cannot get a copy of a report which is regarded as important by the House in all cases.
Having handed the note in—which is I why I was not in my place when the Minister referred to me, as I was trying to get it—it has now gone, and they are now going around looking for another report. It is deeply unsatisfactory. One reason the Government are getting into problems in a number of areas is that business management is failing. The noble Lord, Lord Newton, and other Members on that side of the House who have been familiar with managing government business in previous years will know precisely what I mean by this.
I emphasise that, like all members of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, I am aware of the sort of Bills we will have to look at in advance. When you get something like this, you make yourself aware of the basics but do not get down to the detail until you are close to the date of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee meeting and when you are in that meeting. You have to go into the small print to get it in order and so it is very difficult to speak to it the following day when the report has not been available to any Members of the House except those who were fortunate enough to get a copy before I picked up what must have been one of the last ones. That is deeply unsatisfactory. The Government should take this very seriously.
I know that the Government take seriously the reports of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. Indeed, since I have been a member, most of our recommendations have been accepted. This Minister, most notably, has been very good on this as well. However, we are looking at how the Executive are held to account by the House. To have a situation develop where a particularly complicated and large Bill like this is before the House and an important report from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee is not readily available must cause concern. You cannot even refer to it. Obviously, I knew what the arguments were because I was in the committee meeting yesterday, but it is not satisfactory and I think a number of Members know it. Although I welcome the Minister’s comments that he will be taking on board the committee’s report, that is like saying, “We hope that we will be able to meet the committee’s concerns” when it might be too late after that until we get to Third Reading.
I assure the noble Lord that the Executive—or the Government—have no control at all over the conduct of House committees. I make no criticism of either the committee or the House authorities. I am grateful that we have indeed had the observations of the report on the Bill. It is a pity that they are last minute, and I was not aware that copies were not available. I picked one up as I came in. I had a hasty look at it; we did not have very long before we started.
We should be careful. We obviously need as a House to have these matters properly examined and scrutinised and to ensure that noble Lords are aware of them. I hope that I have helped the Committee by saying that our attitude is to take these reports seriously. I hope that noble Lords will appreciate that commitment.
I did not mention my noble friend’s amendment. Our government amendments take care of the issue which he raised in his amendment.
Amendment 120A agreed.
News Corporation/BSkyB Merger
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat as a Statement the Answer to an Urgent Question given by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport in the other place.
“Mr Speaker, earlier today I placed a Written Statement before the House outlining the next steps in my consideration of the potential merger between News Corporation and BSkyB. In this I explained that I have published the results of the consultation on the undertakings in lieu offered by News Corp together with the subsequent advice I have received from Ofcom and the OFT.
As I outlined, the consultation did not produce any information which caused Ofcom or the OFT to change its earlier advice to me. I could have decided to accept the original undertakings. However, a number of constructive changes have been suggested and, as a result, I am today publishing a revised, more robust, set of undertakings and will be consulting on them until midday on Friday 8 July.
Significantly these changes strengthen further the arrangements for editorial independence and business viability of the new spun-off Sky News. In my view, they provide a further layer of very important safeguards. As amended, I believe that these undertakings will remedy, mitigate or prevent the threats to plurality which were identified at the start of this process. If, after this next consultation process, nothing arises which changes this view, I propose to accept the undertakings in lieu of a reference to the Competition Commission. Before coming to this view, though, I will of course seek once again the advice of the independent external regulators”.
I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. I do not think that its content has come as a surprise to anyone in your Lordships' Chamber. What has come as a surprise is the fact that, knowing the degree of interest in this subject in both Houses and among the wider public, the Secretary of State has tried to slip this decision out rather than coming to the other place to make a proper Oral Statement.
This is the continuation of a rather sad state of affairs. The initial delay supposedly arose from the need for a consultation on the Secretary of State's in-principle decision. As the Minister made clear at the time:
“I am opening a consultation period, during which time all interested parties will be able to express their views on the undertakings. Once I have considered representations, I will reach a decision on whether I still believe that the undertakings should be accepted”.—[Official Report, Commons, 3/3/11; col. 519.]
I am curious to know what responses were received to that consultation. For example, did the Secretary of State take into account the views of the public, who, after all, have a keen interest in maintaining diverse news sources? If so, what is the Minister's response to the fact that a recent poll showed that 64 per cent of the public are opposed to the merger because they think that it will give News Corp too much power? Or did the Secretary of State take into account the submissions made from the Alliance of Media Organisations, representing most of the media household names, including BT, Guardian Media, Associated Newspapers, Trinity Mirror, Northcliffe Media and the Telegraph group, all of which wrote to oppose the merger? They argued, among other things, that Newco would not be independent but would be economically dependent on News Corporation; that there are insufficient safeguards for editorial independence; and that the proposals put too much power in the hands of the Culture Secretary rather than independent regulators. Can the Minister confirm whether these views have been taken into account? It appears, on the face of it, that the only organisation which remains enthusiastically in favour of the merger is News Corp itself.
There is a fault line at the very heart of the process which the Secretary of State has adopted for the consultation, because by narrowing down the debate to the content of the undertakings originally offered up by News Corp it neatly sidesteps the much wider concerns about plurality which still exist but which the Secretary of State chose to ignore when he made the decision not to refer the whole issue to the Competition Commission, which he could have done quite legitimately and which would have been the correct course of action pursued by these Benches in these circumstances.
This decision is taking place against a backdrop of outstanding legal cases arising from the phone-hacking scandal, and other noble Lords may wish to comment on that. Of course, the current police investigation must pursue its course to enable those responsible to be brought to justice. However, it undoubtedly brings into question whether this is the right time, when so many questions still hang over the ethical principles underlying News Corp, to give it so much additional media power in this country. I very much hope that the Minister will support our call for an independent inquiry into press standards once the investigations are complete.
I have a number of specific questions for the Minister. First, the new deadline for the latest consultation is 8 July. That is an eight-day consultation. In the previous consultation the media organisations in particular protested that there was insufficient time for them to formulate a detailed response. What chance have they got on this occasion, and how can the Minister be serious about conducting a proper consultation in such a short period?
Secondly, given the further consultation taking place, when does the Minister intend to bring the matter back to the House to enable a full debate to take place? Thirdly, to enable a full debate to take place, will the Government give a commitment to publish not only the latest undertakings but the full independent legal advice on all aspects of the acquisition which the Government have received? Fourthly, is the Minister now able to state categorically that the financial and editorial independence of Newco has been prescribed in such a way that there cannot be a seepage of influence or control back to the main News Corp board? Finally, can the Minister give an assurance that the shareholder register for Newco will be published so that there is full transparency regarding the ownership of that company?
This is not a great day for media plurality or British journalism. I foresee that in years to come there will be cause for many people who believe in open democratic debate to rue the day that we allowed so much power and influence to be centralised in one media organisation. I do not know what it would take to persuade the Secretary of State to carry out one of the Government’s infamous U-turns, but on this issue I can assure the Minister that it would be widely welcomed across both Houses and among the wider public.
In answer to the noble Baroness’s first question, I think it is a bit rough to say that there was surprise. There was no surprise as there has been ultimate transparency: at every stage of this discussion, debate and decision-taking the Secretary of State has published every single document relating to his meetings. The 2002 Act, which was passed by the noble Baroness’s Government, gave authority to the elected Secretary of State to take these decisions. Hacking, which is a very serious problem, will no doubt come up in further questions, so I will leave it for now and try—as the noble Baroness has asked so many questions—to answer her other points. As for coming back to the House, that, of course, is the responsibility of the usual channels.
On 3 March the Secretary of State informed the House that, based on advice he had received from the Office of Fair Trading and Ofcom, he was minded to accept the undertakings offered by News Corp in lieu of a reference to the Competition Commission. As the Enterprise Act 2002 requires, he published these undertakings for public consultation which ended on 21 March.
The noble Baroness asked about the representations. The Secretary of State received more than 40,000 representations to this consultation, including a very large number of near-identical responses as a result of internet campaigns. The summaries of the main responses are on the DCMS website. He met representatives from Trinity Mirror, Guardian Media Group, Telegraph Media Group, Associated News and Media and Slaughter and May on 24 March, and met Avaaz on 15 April. Notes of these meetings will be published at the end of the process. The substantive points have been carefully considered by the Secretary of State, advised by the independent regulators. Regarding the public values, Sky will have less power than it has at the moment and will be cross-promoting for stability in financial areas.
My Lords, this was intended as a Written Statement. It was only when two PNQs—one in this House and one in the Commons—were tabled that we had the Statement that we have just heard. Will my noble friend tell the Secretary of State that it would have been much better to have freely volunteered an Oral Statement in both Houses? That would have been much more convenient for Parliament. This is an important decision but, frankly, we are now being presented with a done deal. Therefore, I have two questions. First, would a British company be allowed to take full control of an American media company, or is it not the case that we are limited to a maximum stake of 20 or 25 per cent? What are the Government doing to break down that barrier? Secondly, is it not clear that we have a position today in which too much market power over the British media is being exercised by one company? I hope that the Government recognise that very many people in this country regard this concentration of power as unacceptable. I urge the Government, even at this very late stage, to review and strengthen the rules on media plurality.
I thank my noble friend Lord Fowler for his questions, and I will of course relay his concerns to the Secretary of State. As I said in reading out the Statement, this is still an ongoing situation. We have until midday on 8 July before any final decision is taken. This has been going on since last summer and there have rightly been many consultations. The Secretary of State has published all papers relating to every meeting on the subject. With regard to a British company taking control of a United States company, I will have to write to my noble friend on those details.
Does my noble friend the Minister recall that in 2002 the Labour Government denied that we needed a general plurality test on media ownership and that it was only because of the efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, my noble friend Lord McNally and others, that the plurality test was eventually included in that Act? Given recent events and controversy surrounding the acquisition of BSkyB and the fact that in March the Secretary of State said that the existing check on media plurality “may not be as robust as it should be”, and ahead of the upcoming and very important communications Bill, is it not time that the Government set up an independent commission to look at the issue of plurality in order to ensure that, in future, we have a robust mechanism for dealing with threats to media plurality?
I thank my noble friend Lady Bonham-Carter for that question. She is absolutely right that plurality is one of the major concerns at the heart of this. During the consultation period a number of issues were raised that were not material to the issue of media plurality. A number of respondents raised competition issues, which were dealt with by the European Commission, but the Secretary of State said today in the other place that he would be looking further at various areas of plurality. I am grateful to the noble Baroness for raising that point. I add to my response to my noble friend Lord Fowler: the previous Administration removed foreign ownership restrictions, which is why foreign companies can buy UK media companies.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, raises an important point, which covers the independence of News Corporation. The undertakings provided by News Corporation provide a stronger degree of independence for Sky than the original provisions for the Times. Those safeguards operate at a number of levels and, taken together, should make certain the editorial independence of Sky News. In particular, to cover concerns expressed by the noble Lord, News Corporation will remain a minority owner. The new company will have a majority of independent directors and be independently chaired. At least one independent director must have senior editorial or journalistic experience, and the company's articles of association explicitly contain the principle of editorial independence and integrity in news reporting. There will be a corporate governance and editorial committee to make certain that there is compliance with those requirements, which will also have a majority of independent directors and be independently chaired. The Secretary of State feels that, with those new, binding words, he is and the public should be totally satisfied.
The noble Lord suggests that this is a done deal. My noble friend’s remarks suggest that the Secretary of State will consider additional material in the week of consultation that remains. Can my noble friend explain what issues will need to be substantiated in such submissions to persuade the Secretary of State to change his mind?
Under the law, a minimum of seven days’ further consultation is required. The Secretary of State will be receiving suggestions or ideas for changes that people feel necessary to present to him; then he will take the decision. He is in a quasi-judicial situation, and he will take the decision wisely, I am sure.
My Lords, has the Secretary of State already taken into account the fact that, as we have already heard, 64 per cent of the population is opposed to the proposals? Has he already taken that into account and rejected it? That is what it looks like, which does not seem to be paying much attention to public opinion.
I am sure that he has taken the 64 per cent into account, the details of which I have not got in my brief, but I will write to the noble Baroness with the results of the poll—there are many different polls and I am not sure whether they all come out at 64 per cent.
My Lords, this is not simply an issue about the plurality of the media. It is about the credibility of the person who is purchasing BSkyB. First, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and say that it was terrible to hear on Radio 4 a report on what the Minister was putting out in a Written Statement today, when this House should have been given a proper Statement on what is clearly a very controversial issue.
My concern is about the company to which we are now considering that ownership should be given—whether it is a done deal or not, I shall wait to see, but I suspect that it is. That is an indication of the Government’s change since 3 March. They have listened to the consultation; they have made proposals; and, yes, there are some changes. That is not the only change that has taken place since 3 March, when a Statement was made to this House about the purchase of BSkyB. Many other things have changed, not least the admission now that it was not a single rogue operator. Other reporters have been arrested who were working for the Murdoch press who were committing these criminal acts. Also, we know that a chief executive has now admitted that she was paying—the Murdoch press was paying—the police for information. That is the company that we are now considering should have control of a major media organisation.
On top of that, Mr Murdoch himself, in settling a case with Sienna Miller, has now admitted—he has not only apologised for what they were doing—that they did not provide all the information. Withholding information is a criminal act under our laws as well. That is the man, Mr Murdoch himself, who said, “We were not robust enough in our inquiries in providing the information”. The provision of information was to the police in the early stages, and the police came to the wrong conclusions. In those circumstances, the man we are talking about who is bidding for this deal, for which we have had the Statement today—do you want to get in?
I will be smacked on the hand if necessary, but I will say what I have to say. What I shall say is that the case of the apology is now an important issue. He is the man who is purchasing. He admits that they have committed criminal acts. In those circumstances, that is a consideration.
Plurality is a minor part. The credibility of the person who is purchasing is an essential issue for us. I cannot help but feel that this decision came shortly after the Prime Minister met Mr Murdoch. A few days later, we get the decision. Of course, I cannot say that anything happened there, but we have a decision, a change and a commitment.
Is the Minister aware that all those things have gone on? Are there not issues about due process to be considered in the company? Are the Government now prepared to have a public inquiry? Are they prepared, as I have constantly asked, not to do anything until the criminal inquiries have been completed?
My final point, just before I finish, is that what I found alarming in the settlement of the Sienna Miller case is that the agreement was not to say everything in court but to tell Miller after, in private. That is about what other criminal acts have gone on. There is no exposure in that. Our courts are not considering all that has gone on. This man, to my mind, is not a fit and proper person to be purchasing such an organisation, and I hope that we will come back to have a debate followed by a public inquiry.
My Lords, as I have said once or twice before from this Dispatch Box and to the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, we take hacking very seriously. It is a serious crime and no company is above the law. The Secretary of State has taken the view that News Corp has offered serious undertakings and has discussed them in good faith. Hacking, as I said, is a serious matter but it has been around for a very long time. That does not make it any better but this is not the first case of hacking, and perhaps they are not the only people hacking. We have had four Questions and several debates on this in your Lordships’ House, but the hacking aspect is not part of today’s Statement. As I said once before, it is a criminal case and one that the Home Office is looking at.
My Lords, the Written Ministerial Statement, which has been placed in the Public Paper Office, contains an interesting paragraph, which states:
“Some respondents also argued that News Corp could not be relied upon to abide by the requirements set out in the undertakings, citing previous guarantees and assurances given by News in the past”.
Would the Minister outline what those previous guarantees were, what assurances were given in the past in relation to other matters by News Corp and whether it is correct that those guarantees and assurances have not been abided by? I recall seeing in a publication—I cannot remember which—a suggestion that an independent chair was appointed for a period but that after a certain amount of time, perhaps some years, that position lapsed.
In that context, I ask the Minister to enlighten us with more detail on the passage in the Written Ministerial Statement on “Editorial Independence”, which refers to,
“the definition of independent directors”,
and to a requirement for meetings of the board about editorial or journalistic matters, or of corporate governance of editorial committees, to be quorate only if
“an Independent Director with senior editorial and/or journalistic expertise is present”.
Can the Minister tell us how many members would be on those boards and committees, to give an indication whether the independent director would be a lone voice among many or few? Above all, would it be possible for the company to change its articles of association, and if so, when? In other words, for how long would those undertakings be legally enforceable?
My Lords, the editorial independence is of paramount importance. A number of changes have now been made to the undertakings to strengthen further the arrangements for independence, which I will read out:
“Sky News’ Articles of Association set out the definition of independent directors; Meetings of the board of Sky News about editorial or journalistic matters will only be quorate if an Independent Director with senior editorial and/or journalistic expertise is present. Similar arrangements apply to the corporate governance and editorial committee. This is a response to representations that these arrangements could be undermined if this Director was often unavailable for meetings for whatever reason”—
the majority of directors are independent, so there is no voice in the wilderness.
“The change will ensure that Sky News organises its business so as to ensure that there is always appropriate senior editorial and/or journalistic expertise at relevant meetings. The appointment of a Monitoring Trustee whose main role is to ensure that News Corp complies with the undertakings and make sure that News Corp does not do anything ‘that would prevent Newco [i.e. the spun off Sky News] being placed in an overall position of editorial, governance, commercial and financial independence in which it will contribute to plurality as Sky News did prior to the Transaction’”.
I will write to the noble Lord about the number of directors.
My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister can give some assurances about the financial viability of Sky News following this proposed spin-off, if you like, as an independent. Without the backing of a large media organisation, one wonders how long it can possibly last. It does not make any money as an organisation as part of News Corp, so how long is it likely to survive? We need this as part of the news plurality in the UK. Perhaps the Minister can give us a little information on that one.
The noble Baroness brings up a very important point. The carriage and brand licensing agreements are an important part of this process. The Secretary of State will only accept the undertakings once he has approved these agreements. These documents have been reviewed in great detail by the Office of Fair Trading, Ofcom and external lawyers. We believe that their independent, expert advice provides confidence that undertakings in key agreements are robust. They have concluded that the drafts of the carriage agreement and the brand licensing agreement are now fully consistent with the proposed undertakings.
In addition, the OFT confirms that the terms of the carriage agreement and the brand licensing agreement mean that Sky News will be practicably and financially viable for the lifetime of the carriage agreement, which I believe is 10 years. There is a need for 80 per cent of votes to change the articles. News Corp must vote against changes for so long as they have less than 50 per cent of the shares. The Secretary of State has made it clear throughout that we are committed to maintaining the free and independent press for which this country is famous and proud. The Secretary of State has sought and published independent advice throughout this process. He has listened carefully to the points made in the consultation and amended the undertakings where appropriate. He is fully aware of the importance of the financial side of this. He has also gone for maximum transparency while taking reasonable account of commercial confidentiality considerations. He continues to believe that if he allows this deal to proceed, Sky News will be able to continue its high quality output and will have greater protections for its operational and editorial independence than those that exist today.
Female Genital Mutilation
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest as a patron of the National Clinical Group against female genital mutilation and as a participant and narrator in the DVD made by that group.
Female genital mutilation is an African practice, common to many of the countries of Africa since time immemorial—not Muslim or tied to any particular religious faith, but cultural and often tribal. It began to take place in this country when immigrants from Somalia and Sudan, as well as Kenya, Nigeria and Sierra Leone began coming to live in the United Kingdom. FGM was brought here but did not diminish in its countries of origin where, in Somalia, for instance, 100 per cent of the female population has suffered this procedure. In parts of that country death from loss of blood and infection is as high as 10 per cent. FORWARD, the Foundation for Women’s Health Research and Development, puts the figure of women at risk from FGM each year as 3 million in Africa alone. When we see on our televisions mothers and children in drought-stricken Somalia at starvation point, suffering the effects of famine, we should remember that these women will all have been mutilated, and some crippled by mutilation.
In some communities the practice is embedded in coming-of-age rituals, sometimes for entry into women’s secret societies. In spite of the intense pain caused by performing surgery by an untrained person without use of anaesthetic or sterile instruments, and in spite of this operation permanently denying them pleasure in sexual intercourse and making childbirth more painful and hazardous than it would otherwise be, girls themselves may desire to undergo it as a result of social pressure from peers and family. Those who have not undergone it may not be allowed to milk the cows or go to certain parts of the farm. Such women believe that they can never become a real wife, and parents are convinced that they are doing the best for their daughters in insisting on it, having a good marriage in view. In parts of northern Kenya young men will not marry an uncircumcised girl. FGM is thought to make a girl clean and beautiful and to preserve virginity. In fact, it is unhygienic and damaging to fertility, leading to infection, bladder disease and fistula.
As I have said, FGM was brought here 40 years ago and more; a practice which in African countries was, and is, so common that talking about it was no more necessary than discussing the age-old preparation of certain kinds of food or some system of making clothes. This was the way it was done, so women who came here saw no need to speak of a practice that was accepted and taken for granted. It became, and still is, a secret. It is this secrecy in families and communities, not to mention contact with the outside world, which has made changing the attitude of immigrants and the children and grandchildren of immigrants so difficult and near-impossible. People will not speak of it. They will not talk to their non-African neighbours about it, still less to doctors or the police. It is only when a woman becomes pregnant that her FGM is discovered and a doctor or midwife asks, “Where did you have this done?”.
They want to know because performing it is against the law in the United Kingdom. The Female Circumcision Act was passed in 1985 and superseded by the Female Genital Mutilation Act in 2003. This later Act makes taking a female person out of this country for FGM to be performed abroad punishable by a maximum of 14 years’ imprisonment. Yet FORWARD estimates that 24,000 women are at risk of FGM in the UK and over 66,000 live with its results in England and Wales, figures which may be grossly underestimated since the data were based on the 2001 census.
Although the police are intent upon bringing a prosecution—it is hoped for more its deterrent effect than as punishment—no prosecution has yet taken place, the secrecy factor being in great part responsible for this failure. Girls who can be heard in north London talking to their friends about being “cut” as initiation into a kind of community membership will say that FGM was performed on them as babies or before they came to the United Kingdom. Women presenting themselves at ante-natal clinics may well say the same and midwives are naturally wary of inquiring too closely into this highly sensitive and delicate cultural area.
The public at large know little about FGM and many of those who have heard it called female circumcision believe it to have some connection with male circumcision and be therapeutic or a mere formality. I have told those who have asked me what it really is and my explanation has been received with horror and in some cases, “I don't want to know”. But I believe that the more people who know the details of this practice the better; that they know that some victims—the word is not an exaggeration—are babies of three months or even newborns; many are infants and five year-olds.
Obviously, because of its nature, it cannot be the subject of a widely advertised and well illustrated campaign of the kind that alerts the public to the dangers of, say, heart disease, prostate disease and many forms of cancer. Does the Minister believe that such widespread advertising of what FGM is and what remedies are possible—I am thinking of reversals—could be achieved and might be effective?
Reversals are now being performed and they are of enormous benefit to mutilated women. Parts of the excised genitalia cannot, of course, be restored. No surgeon, however skilful, can do that, but reversal is of great benefit to women, restoring ease in urination and establishing straightforward menstrual periods. Most of all, perhaps, it ensures easier childbirth and less danger to mother and child.
I am constantly asked by those who know what FGM is, why, if it happens in the UK, there have been no prosecutions eight years after the passing of the Act. It is not for want of trying that the police have so far been able to bring no prosecutions, against either practitioners carrying out FGM here, or those taking a child abroad for mutilation to be performed in a country less aware of its dangers. The police are anxious to prosecute, as much to provide a deterrent as to punish the perpetrator. They would be much assisted by public awareness. It would be particularly valuable in the struggle against FGM if teachers, especially in primary schools, were to be on the watch for female children who tell them that they are being taken to the country of their parents' origin for a holiday or to visit family in Somalia, for instance, Nigeria or the Côte d'Ivoire.
The Metropolitan Police, in conjunction with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Kids' Taskforce, have made a film to raise awareness of the issue which will be launched next Monday at the Lilian Baylis Technology School in Kennington. The National Clinical Group against female genital mutilation has had worldwide success and benefited a large number of women with its DVD showing a surgical reversal being performed. I understand, too, that there are films being made, often by schoolchildren, all over this country. Do the Government support the making of such films showing the pain and suffering caused by FGM and exposing the superstitious beliefs which help it to remain an ongoing custom? There are 16 specialist FGM clinics in England, 10 of them in London. Unfortunately, many are at risk of closure due to funding and staff cuts. Does the Minister agree that it is essential these clinics remain open? Again, does she agree that encouraging teachers to be aware of what is a very real danger to young girls can be of help to the police in bringing perhaps the single prosecution which would be such a major deterrent and factor in putting an end to this practice in the United Kingdom?
My Lords, I am thankful to the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell of Babergh, for giving us this opportunity to discuss and raise the awareness of female genital mutilation. We all hear harrowing stories of unthinkable cruelty to women around the world, but female genital mutilation has to be one of the most disturbing and dangerous practices still very much ongoing. As we all know, it is not just confined to faraway lands, but sadly is extremely prevalent and commonly happening right here in the UK. Sadder still is that not only women but girls and baby girls even less than 12 months are also subjected to this most grave act of violence. I have heard many depressing estimations of the amount of women it is affecting worldwide, and just in the UK the numbers are in excess of 20,000. The World Health Organisation suggests that the figures worldwide are between 100 million and 140 million.
I was brought up in Africa and feel strongly about this awful practice. Noble Lords perhaps will be aware that the perpetrators of these barbaric acts often choose summer holidays to carry out this practice. The reason for subjecting young girls to female genital mutilation at this particular time is thought to be that the girls are given time to heal during the summer months. This avoids arousing suspicions from teachers and peers when they resume their studies in the autumn.
Female genital mutilation can be life-threatening; it is a traumatic experience and can cause a host of illnesses. It has come to my attention that communities in Bristol have come together since 2008 to raise awareness of female genital mutilation and to mark their zero tolerance of it. The campaign is highly commendable. However, does the Minister agree that the time has come to launch a nationwide campaign highlighting the dangers of this practice?
It is a sorry state of affairs that there have been no prosecutions under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003. The Act was intended to protect females from this practice, but unfortunately it has failed to do so. A barrier to prosecution appears to be a fear of reprisals from the perpetrators of this crime. There is also consternation on the part of the victims by their communities if they speak to the relevant authorities about their ordeal. I ask the Minister why there have been no prosecutions under the Act. Furthermore, will my noble friend explain what more can be done to investigate and undertake prosecutions under the legislation?
In July 2010, the United Nations General Assembly created UN Women. Will the Minister tell your Lordships’ House how we are involved with this group and whether we are currently working with it on any projects connected with the issues that we are discussing in this debate?
The perpetrators of this most harrowing and dangerous act are brainwashing their victims, and in many cases the girls may be subjected to compulsion. The activities are kept underground and the communities involved keep silent about them. We must meet this challenge with vigour and determination. An Act is in force and I am confident that the Government appreciate the seriousness of the problems and intend to protect vulnerable women and girls. I look forward to hearing the Minister's ideas and updates on progress.
I thank my noble friend for initiating this debate and for once again raising the issue of FGM. I start by declaring an interest as patron of FORWARD, the Foundation for Women’s Health, Research and Development. As my noble friend said, two pieces of legislation made FGM illegal, but the question has to be: why have there been no prosecutions? We need to examine the legislation again. Perhaps there have been no prosecutions because the law is applicable only to UK citizens and UK permanent residents; perhaps because the law makes it difficult to prosecute perpetrators as it does not protect temporary residents; or perhaps because, as a recent case review demonstrated, there is a lack of co-ordination, awareness and information-sharing among key professionals.
In February, the Government published practice guidelines aimed as a resource for front-line professionals, but they did not include a plan for disseminating the guidelines to key professionals such as police officers, teachers and social workers. To truly raise awareness we must create an environment of positive change, protective policies, the generation and sharing of knowledge, and the forging of strategic partnerships with policy-makers, statutory bodies and civil society organisations. That procedure was on its way in the form of the cross-government FGM co-ordinator, but the post was abolished by the Government in March this year, leaving individual departments to take on the responsibilities. This makes it even more essential for the Government to set out a clear, comprehensive and long-term strategy for tackling FGM. Will the Minister say whether such a strategy is being proposed, and how it will be financed and co-ordinated across government? The loss of this post is compounded by the fact that many organisations working to eliminate FGM are struggling to survive through lack of financial support, leading to closures—most notably that of the internationally recognised African Well Women's Service.
There are 66,000 women in the UK who live with the consequences of FGM, and 24,000 girls are at risk. The consequences can vary from short-term health implications to serious problems in pregnancy and childbirth and serious psychological damage. An important piece of peer research carried out earlier this year showed that type 4 FGM, known as sunna, which includes pricking, piercing or incision, is widely and erroneously accepted because it does not carry the same health risks as other forms of FGM. This is a significant barrier to elimination.
The research also identified that although the majority of cases happen to young children, there is a wider age range of girls being subject to FGM, including in their late teens and early 20s, and that FGM is not discussed even within practising communities so there are differing and contradictory views between the generations about its prevalence. These barriers clearly identify that projects and language must become more adept, dealing with FGM not only as a health issue but also as one of child protection, gender and human rights. To do that there must be greater awareness raising, greater participation and engagement of key communities, including diaspora communities, funding to support existing outreach programmes, the provision of sustainable specialist health and support services, long-term investment and an FGM action plan.
In conclusion, FGM is not only a dangerous and life-threatening practice but a gross violation of the human rights of girls and women. Everything possible should be done to eliminate the practice and ensure that the perpetrators face the consequences of the law.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, for this debate. Only this week we received a bulletin from the End Violence Against Women coalition, which estimates that 15,000 to 20,000 girls under 15 could be at high risk of FGM. No civilised country can find justification on any ground whatever for even a single woman to undergo this vile practice.
This subject causes revulsion. Women, and in particular young girls, deserve the support of all those who care about their rights and freedoms, which we cherish and yet are denied to some who are part of our community. I am afraid the FGM Act of 2003 seems not to have been effective. So if the law is ineffective, what else should we be doing? First, let us destroy the argument that this is a religious ritual or practice. I do not know of any religion that prescribes mutilation. There are perpetrators who advance the argument that FGM protects virginity, ensures marriageability and contains sexuality. It does nothing of the sort. We now have to make a clear statement that those who have chosen to be part of our multicultural society should be in no doubt that the law is designed to protect victims, and that perpetrators will have no place to hide.
We all strive hard to make a reality of children's rights. The Government support the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child. Let us examine what this entails. Article 2 provides the right to equality, irrespective of sex. Article 19.1 provides protection to children from all forms of mental and physical violence and maltreatment. Article 24.1 is designed to provide the highest standard of health. We can add to this the important provision under Article 24.3 to take effective and appropriate measures to abolish traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children, and Article 37(a) which specifies freedom from torture, cruel or inhuman or degrading treatment. I have cited this convention to remind the Government that we have an obligation to protect children. We need to know why the law has been ineffective and should look at international practices to see how other countries have handled this matter.
I ask my noble friend to inquire how the matter of FGM is addressed by our Children’s Commissioner, and what guidance the Minister is giving in respect of this problem. We need answers to the following questions. What guidance is given to social workers regarding registration and action in relation to this practice? What common code of conduct is there for all healthcare professionals regarding FGM? What programme of public education is undertaken for refugees who arrive here from certain countries where such practices are prevalent? Do we publish information in other languages so that refugees and others are aware of the law in the United Kingdom? What training and guidance is provided to teachers and students, making them aware of FGM and the law? What financial and other support is available for women’s groups and advocacy groups? These groups are vital as a catalyst for opening discussions and breaking the taboo around FGM. What impact will the police cuts have and are there plans to ring-fence some of the funds so the activities are not downgraded?
We need answers since the law has failed to provide and the problem will not go away until we build the confidence of women and children to come forward with the cases.
My Lords, I am participating in this debate for two reasons. First, I want to take the opportunity to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, both for instigating the debate and for her untiring work to develop awareness of FGM, to support the many groups working to get it stopped and to support the doctors who do the reversal surgery. Secondly, I want to take the opportunity to mention very briefly—and I must stress that I am no expert on the subject—what I learnt in Kenya during my stay as a volunteer, arranged by Voluntary Service Overseas, with the Coalition on Violence Against Women, an experience which I hope has some relevance in the UK. I participated in the programme the coalition is involved with in the rural areas to persuade whole communities that the time has come to stop this practice. Kenyan law makes it clear that FGM is unlawful. It is illegal under the Children Act 2001 and official figures show the numbers dropping considerably since 2001, although some commentators think all that has happened is that it is now being done in secret.
In Masai communities, with which I was involved, young girls are traditionally circumcised amid great ceremony in preparation for a hoped-for marriage. To avoid this, some girls, who dream of a different life for themselves, run away to safe houses where they are looked after. I visited a school in a rural area which a number of these girls attended. They were being clothed, fed and educated with money raised by various sources from the coalition as their parents would no longer support them. They seemed very determined to avoid the circumcision ceremony and early marriage and to stay on at school. However, the pressure on them to give up and go home was enormous, so I heard. Their parents were telling them, “You will never get married. What will become of you?”. Their peer group was saying, “I had it done. I got lots of presents. Now I am going to get married”. The girls I met were very brave and defiant—standing there in their hand-me-down clothes—and very admirable. Their lives were very difficult.
The Coalition on Violence Against Women also organised educational efforts in the villages, spearheaded by men, to spread the word that men would be better off with educated wives who had not been circumcised. While the law is essential and it is imperative that it is clear that this practice is outside the law, it is education of men and wider opportunities for girls that will in the end make it no longer culturally accepted. I was impressed with the Government’s multiagency practice guidelines and I thank the Library for providing me with these. Can I ask the Minister whether they are widely known and distributed? Since we are expecting people to resist a powerful traditional force, how far are the Government able to support civil society groups, which can support women and their mothers who want to resist this and to have a very different life?
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell of Babergh, for introducing this debate and for pursuing this issue for as long as I can remember—for as long as I have been in your Lordships’ House.
We all know that female genital mutilation is a horrendous practice. In this country I am told that at the moment there are 74,000 first-generation immigrant African women who have undergone it. A research paper published a few years ago tells us that in any given year between 3,000 and 4,000 girls are subjected to FGM. Obviously, it is a cultural practice and, like all cultural practices, it is sustained by a personal belief that it is right and by social pressure. How do you tackle a practice based on deeply held personal belief and constantly reinforced by the pressures of others? I want to emphasise this point because, although the law is important, we should bear in mind how deeply seated in the consciousness of this community this practice is.
Some years ago when I was writing about this, I spoke on the subject at a conference. A fairly distinguished academic from Nigeria came up to me and said, “Don’t sound off. I have undergone this practice recently, after the birth of my last child”. I asked why, at the age of 35, she had done it. She said, “To remind myself that from now onwards I am a mother and not a woman”. When I asked whether this was common, she said it was fairly common in certain circles. In certain parts of Africa it is not uncommon for widows to go through this voluntarily and it happens in many groups of immigrants in Europe and the United States as well.
It horrifies us to think that adult, highly intelligent, university professors and doctors want to go through this, but they do. I want us to recognise that ordinary men and women from these communities have got into the habit of pursuing this practice on their children. The question is how we put an end to it. I want to suggest some things based on my own research and experience in dealing with practices of this kind—although not exactly this—in India and other parts of the world.
Law is important because it sets the tone of society, but there have to be strong and rigorously pursued prosecutions. I am really disappointed that there have been no prosecutions of the same kind that we had in relation to honour killings or forced marriages. We need to take communities into confidence. There are many men and women in those communities who are appalled by this and they ought to be involved in suggesting ways for it to be tackled. It is also important that social pressure is exerted because everyone thinks other people are doing it. Communities should be collectively persuaded to pass resolutions and to say openly why they would not do this and why they would not allow this.
It is also important to bear in mind that we should not be concentrating only on women. This practice takes place because it is part of the patriarchal system and, more importantly, men want it. I do not have the time to go through all this but if you were to ask in whose interest this is being done—women obviously do not enjoy it—I am told that men enjoy it and it is their way of regulating women’s sexuality and behaviour. Therefore, unless we persuade men and boys to recognise that this does not deliver what they think it does, we will not be able to get very far.
It is also important to be able to identify girls at risk fairly well in advance. We know generally that nearly 70 per cent of the girls are between the ages of five and eight and we ought to be able to indentify them and make sure that they are well protected.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, for giving us the opportunity to debate this important issue today. As the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, has said, it is estimated that between 100 million and 140 million African women and girls have undergone FGM, violating their human rights and compromising their health. Each year a further 3 million are at risk in Africa alone.
FGM is not only taking place in Africa, as many noble Lords have pointed out. International migration has increased the number of girls and women living in the African diaspora who have undergone FGM or who are at risk from the practice. It is difficult to confirm its prevalence in Europe but the European Parliament estimates that as many as half a million women in Europe are suffering the consequences of FGM.
FGM is increasingly becoming a European problem. Among many communities the practice is seen as an important tradition, often bound up with religion, which makes eradication more difficult. Nevertheless, it may well be possible to think in terms of eradication sooner than is thought. The examples given by the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, give us a signpost to the way forward.
Parliamentarians are the custodians of democracy and human rights. They have a responsibility through political will and commitment to support the elimination of violence against women in general and, in Africa, FGM in particular in the interests of society as a whole. The Association of European Parliamentarians for Africa, which is known as AWEPA, of which I am an advisory board member, UNICEF and UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, have pledged to co-operate in the implementation of a joint programme for ending FGM. This is recognised as the privileged instrument within the UN for human rights-based social change. The objective is to accelerate social change in favour of human rights, and to increase the rate of abandonment of FGM in the 17 African countries considered a priority.
Across Europe and Africa, AWEPA has agreed to organise parliamentary action to abandon the practice of FGM. Three target countries were identified—Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal—out of the 17 where the practice is most widespread. An analysis of the relevant legal provisions in each country is being made, and the leeway afforded to parliamentarians as power brokers is being quantified and identified. An analysis is being made in relation to each Government's executive branches and their relevant parliamentary committees as well as to civil society organisations and, not least, women's rights groups. In parallel and in partnership with the Pan-African Parliament and with input from UNICEF and UNFPA, the joint programme is developing a parliamentary handbook in which the UN agencies’ policy expertise in the area of FGM combines with knowledge of the parliamentary processes in each country. The handbook is being promoted by parliamentary champions in all three countries through the networks of national bookshops. The issue of FGM is closely linked to the attainment of UN MDG3, promoting gender equality and empowerment for women, and MDG5, improving maternal health. The overall objective of AWEPA's programme is the abandonment of the practice of FGM in Africa and Europe by 2015.
FGM cannot and will not be abandoned in this country until it is first ended in Africa. Laws alone will not end the practice, but parliaments can lead the way in bringing about the societal change needed. At the very least, we should find room in DfID’s maternal health budget to support this UNICEF project. Norway, Italy, Ireland and Australia have already made generous contributions to the programme. A further £20 million is all that it will take to fund the five-year programme and see the first target country free from FGM. I look forward to my noble friend’s comments on whether DfID will come across and stump up.
My Lords, this is undoubtedly a human rights issue of a very serious kind. The practice continues despite the criminalising of the process both here and back in most of the countries where it is widespread. I want to reiterate what my noble friend Lord Parekh said: it is very clear what the purpose is. It is about preparing women for marriage. My experience is that it is not often performed on babies nowadays; it is performed on girls, usually prepubescent girls between the ages of eight and 12, and it is done because there is still, if not child marriage, the betrothal of girls when they are still that young.
The idea is to keep women chaste, to remove their opportunity for sexual pleasure and to remove concerns that women with a clitoris will somehow be more promiscuous. Not all circumcision involves the removal of the clitoris, but for most women, it involves the stitching of their vagina and labia. Sometimes it even involves the removal of the labia. In Africa, I have heard practitioners and older men and women claim that it makes girls less wild, more placid and therefore exactly marriageable material.
I have gone to Africa with the charity SafeHands for Mothers and, like the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, I have heard the testimony of women and men and seen how traumatised women are having gone through that experience, especially if you talk to girls who have escaped the possibility or who have just undergone female genital mutilation. I have visited hospitals in north London to see photographs taken of the damaged and mutilated vaginas of women who attend hospital because they are pregnant. Obstetricians have to give them guidance on what to expect in labour and tell them that they will have to have an episiotomy in order to give birth. After giving birth, the women beg those same doctors to stitch them up the way they were in order to please their husbands. Doctors have to explain to women that they will play no part in that practice, but they know that those women return to them with a second pregnancy, and their vagina has been restitched. We have to ask ourselves how that is coming about. Doctors in this country are satisfied that women in the communities here perform these practices.
In Africa, I have heard doctors saying that a practice current there is the performance of symbolic cutting where there is no removal of the clitoris and it is simply, they insist, a small nick that answers the community’s cultural demand for the continuation of the practice. I hope that those in authority, in the medical profession and in the police are making it clear that a medical practitioner performing even the small nick will not be endured in this country and that prosecution will ensue. It must contravene the belief that we should do no harm.
I want to hear from the Minister about what is being done about reaching general practitioners, doctors in private practice and cosmetic surgeons to find out whether things are being done to women who want their vaginas restitched after birth. I want to hear what efforts we are making to breach the silence on this issue and whether we are doing enough in our outreach to the communities.
Finally, an absence of prosecutions is usually an indicator that there is something not happening, so I thank my noble friend Lady Rendell for keeping this matter before the House, and I hope that we will see greater activity on this issue.
Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, on instigating this excellent debate. I hesitate to use the word “interesting”, but the horrific extent to which this practice still goes on is interesting. Most points have been made, so I have been slashing, cutting and pasting my speech furiously during the debate so that I do not repeat too many points.
The All-Party Group on Population, Development and Reproduction Health, which I now chair, has produced two reports that are extremely relevant. The first was way back in 2000. It was specifically on female genital mutilation and covered most of the points that have been made in this debate and, indeed, reiterated a lot of the experience that noble Lords have told us about today. The second was the 2009 report on maternal morbidity Better off Dead?—that was my title. Both reports highlighted the global human rights violations of FGM, which affects about 130 million women and girls worldwide, 500,000 in Europe and an estimated 66,000 in England and Wales. These women and girls are brutally mutilated and that has long-term physical and mental consequences. Their future reproductive health is violated in the most brutal and disgusting way.
If we had time, I would like to have a debate on the origins of this practice and a debate on the origins of male circumcision too, which is very interesting. It is being questioned in some circles nowadays. It is said that it started as a public health measure to stop irritation and infection when men did not wear Y-fronts. Women certainly did not have underwear. Is it conceivable that back in the mists of time, it was in some way seen as a healthy or hygienic practice? I do not know, but we all know how it is interpreted nowadays and we have heard from many noble Lords that it is, in a sense, to control women. Both practices are in my view violations of the rights of the child. They are against the human rights of children, who are unable to give their consent, and the practices should stop.
Some of us may have heard recently that a brave teacher in Bristol has encouraged a group of girls in her care from different cultural backgrounds who have experience of FGM to make a film called “Silent Scream”, to which I draw the attention of the House. It has its premiere at the Watershed Cinema in the centre of Bristol tonight; it will then go online. I am glad of the opportunity to publicise it. However, this teacher has received little support, with parents and colleagues condemning her for allowing the girls to make the film. I ask the Minister what the Government will be doing to encourage teachers to do this sort of activity and make these sorts of films with their pupils.
I have just a few more questions before I finish. Why has not a single prosecution taken place in this country, compared to the 50 prosecutions that have taken place in France? Where are the support services for girls who have undergone this procedure? Currently there are only 16 such facilities in the UK. What will happen under GP commissioning—who will be responsible for this? What training is being organised for teachers and the police? Where are the statistics on FGM and why are they not collected? Lastly, why has the cross-government FGM co-ordinator post been abolished? I hope that the Minister can answer these questions.
My Lords, I, too, welcome the initiative of my noble friend Lady Rendell in instituting this debate and for championing this issue for many years. We owe her a great debt. As in previous debates, the picture painted by noble Lords today is of the extensive nature of this dreadful practice in many countries, including our own. As noble Lords have commented, the Female Genital Mutilation Act was introduced in 2003, but there have been no prosecutions since it was brought in. As my noble friend Lady Rendell said, clearly there are police forces who would wish to prosecute but so far the evidence has not come forward.
I ask the Minister to respond to the point raised just now by the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, as to the reason for there being no prosecutions at all, and whether we can learn anything from other countries such as France, if indeed they have been able to find ways to prosecute? It would be very interesting to know whether her department has been able to undertake some research into the experience of other countries.
My noble friend Lady Gould wondered if the law needed revisiting and made a number of suggestions for improving the law. Will the Minister very kindly consider those proposals?
My noble friend Lady Rendell suggested a public awareness campaign. Will the Government support this, including, as she said, films showing the pain and suffering caused by this dreadful practice? In her opening remarks, my noble friend mentioned a DVD that she supported. I have seen it—it is very telling. Will the Minister give support to such initiatives and to the initiative mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, by a schoolteacher in Bristol? It was very concerning to hear that, far from being supported, she had come in for criticism. This is extremely disappointing.
Fantastic work is being done in clinics. Can the Minister assure me that a way will be found within the new health service structure to ensure that those clinics continue to be funded and supported? The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, raised the issue of police funding. We know that one of the consequences of cuts to police funding has been the closure of specialist units. There is a real problem with prosecutions—will the Minister consider whether there is a need for some kind of regional or national unit to gather expertise to advise police forces generally? The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, also mentioned the role of the Children’s Commissioner. Will she consider that, as well as his suggestion about the need for education for refugees?
I also ask the Minister to respond to my noble friend Lady Kennedy about practitioners in this country because it is clear from what we said that there are some who are involved in these practices. My noble friend’s analysis of the causes was very helpful.
Picking up a point made by my noble friend Lord Parekh, what work are the Government doing in relation to UK communities, particularly men and boys in those communities? The noble Baroness, Lady Stern, mentioned the Kenyan experience. It would be helpful if we could establish whether the work being done there would be relevant to the UK. I also pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, about DfID programmes, which I thought was very important indeed.
Finally, my noble friend Lady Gould asked whether the Government would develop a long-term strategy. I ask the Minister to consider that very carefully indeed. The reinstatement of an FGM co-ordinator post in Whitehall would be an important signal of the Government’s concern and commitment in this area.
My Lords, I join all noble Lords in paying tribute to the dedication of the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, to this cause and her widely respected work towards the elimination of female genital mutilation. The noble Baroness illustrated so vividly the horrors of this practice and I hope that I will have time to respond to the noble Baroness and other noble Lords’ questions. If time does not permit, I will write to noble Lords.
This debate is absolutely crucial for women and girls across the world. Female genital mutilation is a form of child abuse which this Government are committed to eradicating. Similarly, the UN Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women has clearly denounced the practice of FGM in its general recommendation No. 14 on female circumcision. The UN General Assembly’s resolution of January 2002 on traditional or customary practices affecting the health of women and girls called upon all states to ratify or accede to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and to adopt national measures to prohibit harmful traditional practices such as FGM.
We have to protect girls from this abuse and ensure that all those living with the consequences of FGM are given the care and support they deserve and so badly need. Front-line professionals who have responsibilities to safeguard children and protect adults from the abuses associated with FGM play a vital role in identifying children and young women who are at risk or who have been subjected to FGM. It is unlikely that any single agency will be able to meet the multiple needs of someone affected by FGM and therefore it demands a multiagency response.
Similarly, the coalition Government have recognised the need for a joined-up approach to tackle FGM and this method has been successful in drawing together, co-ordinating and driving work from a number of government departments. We are trying to raise awareness of this barbaric practice and have made progress. However, our key focus is prevention and we have undertaken considerable work in the past year across and between nine government departments to advance efforts to prevent and tackle FGM in the UK and around the world. In February, the Government launched multiagency practice guidelines on female genital mutilation for front-line professionals such as teachers, GPs and nurses. The guidelines aim to raise awareness of FGM, highlight the risks of the practice and set out clearly the steps that should be taken to safeguard children and women from this abuse. This is a key step towards ensuring that professionals are able and confident to intervene to protect girls at risk.
We know that FGM causes significant harm to the physical and mental health of girls in many ways, which many noble Lords have raised today, and increases the risk of life threatening complications during childbirth for both the mother and baby. There are 15 specialist clinics in the NHS which treat women and girls who have been subjected to FGM. These clinics all have trained and culturally sensitive staff who offer a range of healthcare services for women and girls, including the commonly called “reversal” surgery. A clinic based in the Guy’s and St. Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust in London sees more than 300 clients per year and carries out between two and three reversals of FGM per week. It may surprise noble Lords—although I suspect it does not from listening to the contributions—that 30 to 40 per cent of those clients are British nationals.
The Royal College of Midwives has identified FGM as a key issue to its members and is conducting a survey of midwives to understand more about the numbers of women being seen by health services and the training needs of health staff. The results will be used by the Royal College of Midwives to input into national strategies and plans, and to provide better support to midwives by way of providing information and appropriate educational resources. We applaud this and other such initiatives.
Communications about FGM are key to bringing the issue to people’s attention. More than 40,000 leaflets and posters have been circulated to schools, health services, charities and community groups around the country. This is not the only method we are using to raise awareness and we know that it is not an end in itself but a foundation on which to build. Guidance has also been issued to British embassies and high commissions to protect British girls and women at risk of FGM overseas. We must be clear that the long-term and systematic eradication of FGM in the UK will require practising communities to abandon the practice themselves.
Through the regular government-chaired female genital mutilation forum, we will work with the well established network of FGM civil society organisations to co-ordinate activities and input into government policy-making as well as to examine how we can support and facilitate their engagement with practising communities in the UK. We have reached out to work with a range of charities and civil society partners active in this area. Their wealth of experience has been absolutely crucial in shaping our work and we thank them for their input and for sharing their expertise with us. It has been an excellent example of partnership working that we are keen to continue going forward.
Looking forward, we will continue to examine how FGM can best be included in existing statutory training for professionals, and to offer other areas of specific, tailored training to the relevant agencies, both of which are key to the prevention and tackling of female genital mutilation. There have also been some successful initiatives from the police. The Metropolitan Police’s Project Azure work at Heathrow, which speaks to families potentially taking the girls overseas for FGM, has strengthened our last line of defence for these girls.
The noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, referred to the interesting work being done with the Metropolitan Police at the Lilian Baylis Technology School in Vauxhall, which was approached to take part in a female genital mutilation film project. In further illustrating the project, it was decided to hand the film production over to a group of young people to decide how this sensitive subject should be presented to their peers. The school’s well-being group was thought to be the ideal place for the project. The group included girls from Eritrea and Somalia, two of whom had already been “cut” and who shared their experiences and knowledge with group members. One pupil revealed that her father had refused to allow her to be cut despite her mother being keen for her to have FGM. The film should be ready for delivery to schools in September. I think that it will be a very powerful tool in a crucially important area, for we know that the education and safeguarding sectors play a vital role in identifying and intervening when girls are suspected of being at risk of FGM. I think that the idea of directly involving children, including those who have already sadly experienced the horror of FGM, is a brave and innovative idea.
We need to tackle this issue at its root. By reaching out to children directly, we can hope to change the mindset of our future generations to ensure that when these girls become mothers they will abandon the practice for good. While FGM needs to be addressed in a comprehensive manner by all parts of society, change must come from the communities which carry out this practice, and we commend and applaud communities which have taken a strong stance on this issue. Internationally, we recognise that FGM is a serious problem and the Government’s aid programme is committed to empowering women and girls, including preventing violence against women and girls, including FGM where appropriate.
The Government will support sensitive measures to counter all forms of gender-based violence internationally and will support measures to eliminate FGM indirectly through their core funding of the key UN agencies that address FGM—namely, the United Nations Population Fund, the United Nations Children's Fund and the World Health Organisation—as well as supporting NGOs which focus on tackling FGM. Closer to home, we will also work with other EU member states and EU institutions to examine how and where the EU can add value to global efforts to tackle FGM.
The Government are frustrated by the lack of prosecutions in the 25 years that female genital mutilation has been illegal in the UK but the success of the legislation cannot be measured only by the number of prosecutions. We hear anecdotally that the legislation has been a deterrent, stopping families from proceeding with their plans to have FGM performed on their daughters.
Legislation alone cannot eliminate the practice altogether. Families and communities need to take ownership of the issue and must help to stop committing this terrible crime. Prosecution after the fact, although desirable, does not relieve the victim of a lifetime of pain and discomfort. We want to prevent FGM from happening in the first place. Despite the lack of prosecutions, the Act is intended to deter this unacceptable practice and anecdotal evidence suggests that it has had some deterrent effect. The Act has also provided an impetus for outreach work with the practising communities and has been widely used to raise awareness among the police, judiciary, health professionals, social services departments and education sector so that FGM is treated with the seriousness that it deserves.
Research suggests that the most likely barrier to prosecution is the pressure from the family or wider community that leads to cases going unreported. Victims may be too young and vulnerable or too afraid to report offences to the police or to give evidence in court. Family and community pressure can make it very difficult for girls to come forward to notify the police about what has happened to them. We recognise that more needs to be done.
The Crown Prosecution Service will shortly issue new guidelines for prosecutors on FGM to ensure that the CPS is able to prosecute cases of female genital mutilation that satisfy the evidential and public interest tests within the Code for Crown Prosecutors. Together with police training, we hope that every case of FGM can be investigated and, if it meets the relevant evidential and public interest tests, prosecuted to ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice. We hope that the publication of these guidelines will be the first step towards a successful prosecution in the UK really to press home the point that we will not tolerate the unacceptable abuse of girls and women in this way.
I can see from the clock that I will run out of time. I made a heap of notes and I now undertake to write to noble Lords. I conclude by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, for initiating this debate. I hope that it is noted and goes some way to ensuring that this important issue remains on the agenda in order that girls and women are protected and this unacceptable form of abuse is eliminated for good. As always, this subject highlights the expertise and the passion for which this House is known and respected across the globe.
Committee (4th Day) (Continued)
My Lords, I would just say that in the Library are a number of documents which have been laid for the attention of the Committee.
Clause 42 : Duty to hold local referendum
120B: Clause 42, page 37, line 26, leave out subsection (3)
My Lords, in moving Amendment 120B, I shall speak also to the other eight amendments in this group, which are in my name and in the name of my noble friend Lord Tope, who will arrive in a minute, I hope.
Although we have debated only two groups of amendments so far, we have made quite a lot of progress in discussing the issues around the proposals for referendums. These amendments address the question of who can call referendums under the provisions of this chapter. We approached the question of referendums with some scepticism—that has become obvious. Nevertheless, we understand that there is a localist case for referendums regardless of whether referendums themselves are a suitable part of local democracy. The case was made well by the noble Lord, Lord True, before the lunch break. We are troubled by referendums not just because they present various practical dangers and difficulties, which we talked about last Thursday and this morning, but because of the question of whether local democracy should be plebiscitary or deliberative. The problem with referendums is that they demand a yes or no answer to questions that very often require a great deal of careful discussion and deliberation and are not answerable in a yes/no sort of way; they are answerable in a much more complex way that requires amendment, mediation and compromise between different interests in the community. This is at the heart of the question of who should call referendums.
This suite of amendments would delete those parts of the Bill that allow referendums to be called by a small number of elected councillors. It would also delete the provision that an elected mayor, whether in London or elsewhere, could call a referendum. It would also, perhaps for different reasons, delete the provisions that allow a council itself to call a referendum. I will take those points in order.
In our view, the provision that allows a small number of elected members to call a referendum in their wards is open to a great deal of misuse and abuse. In particular, if,
“one or more members of the authority can make a request”—
in the words of the Bill—then the,
“member for an electoral area”,
“a majority of the members”,
in a multi-member area can call a referendum. It is not clear whether councillors for adjoining wards could join together and jointly call for the same referendum in two or more wards. I put that question to the Minister.
Last Thursday we discussed the danger—so I will not go into it in great detail now—of councillors using referendums in their wards as a tool for re-election, calling a referendum on a populist issue on the same day as they are due to face the electors. An equally dangerous prospect is rivalry within a ward, if perhaps two out of three councillors called a referendum in order to do down the election campaign of a colleague of a different party. A further problem is that wards do not necessarily, and very often do not, match communities.
For all these reasons, many of us find undesirable the possibility that a small number of councillors—one, two or three—can call a referendum in their part of the borough and, as long as it fits the provisions of the Bill, the council will not be able to stop it. The arguments apply equally to elected mayors, who could quite easily call populist referendums to coincide with their own re-election or to boost their popularity. There seems no reason why a mayor should call a referendum about issues that relate to the mayor’s powers because the mayor can address them without a referendum.
As far as the resolution of the council is concerned, these provisions seem unnecessary. Councillors can call referendums at the moment under their existing general powers, and presumably they will continue to be able to do so. They are also able to make arrangements appropriate to the particular referendum that they might want to call. We were given an example in the King’s Lynn area where a referendum called by the district council cost £80,000. It resulted in an overwhelming majority one way, and then the county council ignored it. The argument for not having a referendum on the basis of the resolution of the council is that it is not necessary, and the council can do it anyway without being constrained by the detailed rules and regulations in this Bill.
My final point is that the Bill suggests that referendums can take place within a ward or an electoral division or they can take place in a whole area. However, if you think about towns such as Keighley, which is a clearly separate town within the city of Bradford, why should it not be able to have a referendum, if we are going to have referendums, in a clear community like that? In the case of Burnley, Padiham is a clearly separate town in the Burnley district, but it consists of two wards and bits of other wards; so why should it not be able to have a referendum in the natural community rather than the artificial wards? I beg to move.
My Lords, I endorse most of what the noble Lord has suggested. In particular I entirely concur with his view that the provision for council members to requisition a referendum is apt to lead to mischief and is unnecessary. It is open to the whole council to choose to have a referendum if it wishes. Perhaps the Minister would confirm that it would even be the case in a mayoral council, that the council as a whole could pass a resolution for a referendum. However, to extend that principle to individual members is unnecessary and likely to be a source of considerable nuisance as well as expense. I hope that the Minister will feel, on reflection, that that particular part of the Bill can be safely abandoned without prejudice to the rights of the public at large.
My Lords, I may have misunderstood, but regarding this business about local councils calling for referendums, I thought the Minister said previously that,
“following a request from a member, a referendum may not be held unless the full council has resolved that it be held”.—[Official Report, 28/6/11; col. 1746.]
I therefore thought that we had moved on from that argument.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this debate and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for tabling these amendments. I should reassure him that councils in neighbouring wards can get together to hold a referendum covering a community. I cannot help the way that warding is done. Generally speaking, we have to have building blocks in local government and the ward system is the one that is used, but under the provisions of the Bill it would be possible to hold a referendum that just addressed the interests of Keighley or Burnley, which he illustrated.
Perhaps I can address the implications of the amendments and say why I will resist them. Amendments 120B, 120C, 126ZZA, 128QA, 128R, 128VA and 128W would remove the provisions that would allow councillors to call for local referendums and councils to pass a resolution to hold a referendum. These amendments would have the effect that if an authority were keen to hold a referendum on a local matter, it would not be able to use the powers to hold a formal referendum conferred by the Bill and would only be able to use the rather informal powers contained in Section 116 of the Local Government Act 2003. We accept that local authorities have the power to hold advisory polls under Section 116, but those polls are limited to the council’s services or its expenditure on such services and are therefore not as far-reaching as the provisions in the Bill.
We want to enable councils to hold referendums on any issue of local importance. We believe that as leaders in their areas, it is right for them to be able to do so. It is open to a council under the provisions to hold a referendum on any matter. However, any decision must be taken within the parameters of administrative law. It would need to be a rational decision with reasoned grounds for it. In answer to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, these provisions apply also to mayoral councils. Clearly it would not be rational to hold a referendum on a matter about which no practical decision would be possible by those who were able to take the decision. For example, a decision on whether the country should invest in a programme—the illustration that I have here is rather far-fetched, to send a person to Mars; I am not sure who the drafters of this text had in mind—would not be a rational subject for a referendum by a local authority. Further, the local authority would need to consider very carefully the holding of a referendum on a matter over which it, its partner authorities or the people of the locality had little or no influence. It is not rational for the authority to incur the cost of a referendum which can serve no possible purpose.
I do not see any great advantage in denying authorities access to the referendum framework that we are setting up under this Bill if they want to use it. Nothing in the provisions that my noble friend seeks to omit imposes any obligations on authorities, so I urge him to withdraw the amendment and to support the localism that they promote.
Some of these amendments, Amendments 129K and 129L, refer to the mayor as a member, and I am grateful to my noble friend for bringing them forward. They would remove elected mayors from the definition of “member”, meaning that they could not use the power in Clause 45 to call for a referendum in the area of the council that they have been elected to lead. In fact, this may not be such a great hardship for elected mayors, since they could initiate a referendum by seeking a resolution of the authority under Clause 50. I accept the point made through Amendment 129L—to remove the Mayor for London from the provisions set out in Clause 58(2)—and we will want to consider these points carefully with a view to returning to them at a later stage. I thank my noble friend for submitting those amendments.
With the explanations which I have given in support of the Bill’s provisions, I hope that my noble friend will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Unless I missed it, I do not think that he addressed the particular concerns referred to by both noble Lords, which is what happens with split wards. What would happen to a three-member ward where two are from one party and the third is from another? In my own borough, one-third of the wards are in that position, so it is a significant point. A long time ago I was an opposition councillor, and I would suspect that in the run-up to the council elections, which in London is only a one-in-four-year opportunity, it would be almost irresistible for two opposition councillors seeking to oust their third, unwelcome friend from another party, to seek to trigger a referendum, if only to force the majority party to turn it down shortly before the election. I am sure that that is not what the Government have in mind. I speak with the confidence that none of the opposition councillors in my borough will ever read Hansard and know that I am saying this, but I suspect that this is a tactic that may well enter the minds of some. It is not what the Government intend. I therefore wonder whether we ought not to think a bit more about tightening the provisions to prevent what I must not call frivolous campaigning, but very opportunistic opposition campaigning, by whichever party, because I am sure that, in opposition, we would all do it. Perhaps we should consider that point.
I apologise to my noble friend for missing his opening remarks. I referred to this on an earlier amendment so I will not labour the point, but I agree strongly with the points made by my noble friend Lord Tope. In these circumstances the councillor power needs further examination, and I hope that my noble friend will be prepared to consider that. On the question of area and ward boundaries which my noble friend referred to, the reality is that, in many cases, as real localism emerges, people will choose areas that do not coincide with the boundaries of wards. We as an authority accept that we are defining areas in terms of what local people have chosen as their communities. Indeed, the most recent referendum held in our authority did not follow ward boundaries but community boundaries, and people participated in it enthusiastically. I do not want to press my noble friend further on the point, but the language of the “electoral area” used in the Bill, whether at this point or elsewhere, could create serious obstacles to the actual implementation of localism in the way that communities would choose. I hope that my noble friend will consider that further.
My Lords, I cannot quite understand where we are, which is why I got up before. Earlier this week I moved Amendments 125 and 126, which provided that a councillor could not call for a referendum unless he had a petition signed by 5 per cent of the electorate. I have before me the Hansard report where the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, said:
“I believe that the safeguard we have in place—that, following a request from a member, a referendum may not be held unless the full council has resolved that it be held”.—[Official Report, 28/6/11; col. 1746.]
Surely that is the check. I admit that it is far better than the one we proposed, which was getting 5 per cent of the vote.
Indeed I can confirm that, and I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, because both he and my noble friend Lord Cathcart asked me about it. I will repeat what I said: councillors may call for a referendum, but it will go ahead only if the full council decides that it should. However, the points raised by my noble friends Lord Tope and Lord True need some consideration. The Bill makes no reference to a political party. It does not even talk about controlling councils or membership of groups because that is not the principle on which this piece of drafting was done, and indeed my noble friend Lord True will understand that sometimes it is difficult to provide definitions in legislation. I have explained that our building block is the ward system.
We are going to go on to talk about neighbourhood planning in the future, and it will be useful to consider this debate in the light of that. Meanwhile, we will consider the point made about the risks that could be involved. However, my noble friend Lord Cathcart has kindly given me an opportunity to explain that the whole council has to approve whether a referendum at the bid of an individual councillor or group of councillors should go ahead.
My Lords, I am grateful to everyone who has taken part in this short debate and for what the Minister has said. While the question of a council being able to call a referendum under these provisions seems unnecessary and more in the way of detailed prescription, I understand that it is not a significant issue. The one significant issue that has come out of the debate is the question of whether individual members should be able to call referendums in their own wards. I just want to take the Committee through what the Bill says.
Clause 45 is about a request for a referendum by members. It says that a request complies with this section if a member for a ward—or, if it is a multi-member ward, a majority of members for that ward or division—asks for that referendum. That is subject to Clause 46(2):
“The principal local authority must determine whether it is appropriate to hold a local referendum in response to the petition or request”.
That is the point that the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, made. But Clause 47, which we will come onto in some detail in the later group, clearly says in subsection (1):
“A principal local authority may only determine that it is not appropriate to hold a local referendum in response to a petition or request”—
and that request is a member request—
“on one or more of the following grounds”.
The way in which the local authority, the council, treats a member request as far as grounds for determination—that is, deciding whether it can go ahead—is exactly the same as if a petition is received. We will discuss some of the stuff in Clause 47 a little later but the point is that, if it complies, the council does not have any discretion. It still has to make a formal decision but that decision is whether it complies. If it does, the referendum goes ahead. In an absolute way, the case made by the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, is not what it says in the Bill. If I am wrong, this is a crucial issue that needs to be settled and sorted out.
On that basis, and the basis that more discussion has to take place about member-requested referendums, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 120B withdrawn.
Amendment 120C not moved.
Clause 42, as amended, agreed.
Clause 43 : Petition for local referendum
120D: Clause 43, page 38, line 8, after “44),” insert—
“(ba) where the principal local authority is the Greater London Authority, it is duly signed—(i) by the required percentage of local government electors in each London borough, and(ii) by the required percentage of local government electors in the area of the Common Council of the City of London,”
Amendment 120D agreed.
Amendment 120E not moved.
120F: Clause 43, page 38, line 12, leave out from “though” to end of line 14 and insert “—
(a) where the principal local authority is not the Greater London Authority, the petition does not comply with subsection (1)(b), or(b) where the principal local authority is the Greater London Authority, the petition complies with neither or only one of paragraphs (b) and (ba) of subsection (1).”
Amendment 120F agreed.
120G: Clause 43, page 38, line 20, at end insert—
“( ) In order to comply with this section a petition must be validated by the Electoral Registration Officer or Officers for the relevant area as follows—
(a) that the name of each person on the petition is that of a local government elector who is registered at the address stated on the petition, and(b) that the signature of each person on the petition corresponds to that on the electoral registration form signed by that person.”
My Lords, this amendment stands in my name and in the name of my noble friend Lord Greaves. I shall speak also to Amendment 129A, Amendment 129H and Amendment 188 within this group. Amendment 120G simply requires that the electoral registration officer should check that the signature of the person on one of these petitions requesting a referendum is the signature of that person on the register. Amendment 129A says that they must be on the register, not just entitled to be on the register. That is an important issue of clarification. Amendment 129H says that they must be on the register on the date that they sign. Amendment 188 says that this process cannot really start effectively and properly until we have individual voter registration, so that we have on the register the signatures of the people signing these things and those can be checked against it.
On Tuesday, we listened to many discussions about how many signatures should be required to trigger a request for a referendum of this nature. Apart from the arguments over whether it should be 5, 10, 15 or 25 per cent, it is of considerable importance that, if we are collecting any signatures demanding that such a referendum be held, we know that the people signing petitions are on the electoral register, on it on the relevant day and that their signature on the petition matches what is recorded by the electoral registration officer. That is as will be the case in future for all voters with individual voter registration but is at present the case only with postal voters. At the moment, people sign nomination forms for elections but it is not possible to check their signatures. There are so few signatures required on a nomination form that it is possible quickly to make enough inquiries to see whether those signatures really are the signatures of those people nominating a candidate. However, if in future we are going to trigger perhaps expensive referendums requiring dozens, hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of signatures, we must have a process for checking that they are genuinely the signatures of local electors. There will be nothing to check that these signatures are really the signatures of those people until we have individual voter registration in place. We will have it before the next general election campaign. Otherwise, there will be accusations that small groups of people may be able to fill in the forms with different signatures from names that they simply find on the register. There will be no effective way of checking that they really are the electors that they are supposed to be.
I have often argued in this House that we need greater security in our election process. We do not really know how much abuse there is of the election process. If more people knew how easy it would be to cheat on some of our election rules, there would perhaps be much more cheating in elections. The previous Government moved and this Government are moving to tighten up our electoral processes as a safeguard against potential fraud. We should have proper safeguards against fraud in relation to these petitions.
For example, there have been a lot of problems with the Electoral Commission dealing with donations made to political parties from people on or perhaps not on the electoral register. One of these amendments makes plain that you should be on the electoral register if you are signing this petition—not simply that you should be entitled to be on it. This principle was a matter of significant debate when we considered the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. It was clearly the view of this House, the other place and the Government that if you make a donation to a political party as an individual you should definitely be on the register—not simply able to claim that you are entitled to be on it, had not gone on it and had been missed out. The same principle should apply for these petitions.
Finally, in these various provisions considering how referendums may be triggered, what consultation has there been with the Electoral Commission about such matters? I beg to move.
My Lords, before we consider the implications of these amendments, it is important to remember that we are not actually talking about voting in the referendum itself but about the petition. It is the view of the Government that it is up to a local authority to determine the validity of any referendum that is presented to it.
Amendment 120G would introduce a new layer of bureaucracy requiring that an electoral registration officer must validate each petition to check the names, addresses and signatures of each person who signs a petition. This potentially places a significant burden on the ERO and could lead to delays in the holding of a referendum. An authority will clearly be able to check signatures on the petitions if there is a serious thought that it might be filled with forgeries but it must be for the local authority to decide how it wishes to do so. The authority may consider it unnecessary to verify every signature before it can determine whether the petition is a valid expression of local opinion. Those authorities that wish to devote their time and resources to check each signature may do so. The Government’s view is that most will take a sensible approach. There is no need to impose this extra burden.
It would also be impossible for local authorities to comply with the amendment at present. As my noble friend Lord Rennard admitted, our voter registration does not require the signatures of each elector on the voter registration form, only a signature from one member of the household. As such, local authorities do not hold the signatures of each individual voter, as this amendment would require. My noble friends may have sought to address this point through Amendment 188, which provides that the whole chapter on local referendums cannot be commenced until universal voter registration has been introduced. This would delay commencement of the local referendums regime and thus delay giving local people the mechanism to make their voice heard on issues that matter most to them. I do not believe that is the thinking of the coalition.
Amendment 129A suggests a drafting change to the definition of who would be entitled to vote in a local referendum, probing why we have used the form of words that are currently in Clause 54(1). The answer is somewhat technical: there are some categories of people who are local government electors but who are not entitled to vote in a local election; for example if they are in prison.
Amendment 129H would restrict the category of person who can sign a petition calling for a referendum to those who are registered by a particular date specified in the petition. This is just the sort of procedural technicality that certain lawyers would love to seize on to challenge the validity of a referendum. There really is no need for it. It would implicitly give rise to an obligation on all petitioners to include such a date expressly.
I therefore hope that with these assurances the amendment will be withdrawn. There is no requirement for a signature as part of our plans for individual voter registration because that would prevent registration by phone or e-mail, for example, which may be included in those proposals. With those considerations, I hope that the noble Lord will be able to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his clarification of government thinking on these issues, which I might cheekily paraphrase as saying, “Whatever high standards we have for policing our democratic elections, those should not apply in relation to the gathering of petitions that may require these referendums”. I might ask him for a little further clarification on the issue of being on the register or entitled to be on the register, given that he cited specifically the case of prisoners. Those who are in prison are not able to vote in elections. Is he suggesting perhaps that they should be entitled to sign these petitions? That thinking seems a little muddled, if that is perhaps the case. I continue to have reservations about whether petitions that may be costly to the public purse should be triggered without more safeguards than the Bill currently provides. On that note, I am happy to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 120G withdrawn.
120H: Clause 43, page 38, line 39, at end insert “or
(iii) a parish.”
My Lords, this simple amendment would allow a referendum to take place in the area of a parish council which did not coincide with ward boundaries of either the county council electoral divisions or a district or borough ward. This amendment is not about a parish council conducting a referendum or about the existing provision for parish polls. There is an amendment about those matters later on. It suggests that there may well be circumstances—in my view, there are lots of circumstances—where, if there are to be local referendums, a parish is the appropriate area for the referendum to take place.
There are many examples of where parishes are grouped together to form ward boundaries for principal councils yet those parishes are often more natural communities than are the wards themselves. That is why parishes are as they are, whereas wards are arbitrary and have to be within a certain size. Therefore, very often, wards do not reflect one natural community. They might reflect a series of natural communities or slice communities in two—that very often happens.
Where parishes consist of a village or a small town it is often the case that they are the appropriate unit to hold a referendum if that is what people want and that provision exists. By definition, parishes will consist of one or more polling districts, which exist in order to be able to hold parish council elections. I therefore suggest that even if the referendum applies to a principal council, at whatever level, it ought to be possible to call a referendum within a parish area, rather than what may be a much more cumbersome and inappropriate ward boundary area. I beg to move.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, will doubtless have expected that the words “parish council” might cause this particular old pike to rise from the depths. I see where he is coming from, although I initially felt that this could loosely be reclassified as “Son of Clause 56 stand part”. I appreciate that he has made a distinction which prevents me from pressing that in particular. I will leave most of my comments for the question on Clause 56, because there is a generic process about parishes and how they fit into the thing.
I am a little concerned about inserting the principle regarding parish into something that relates to principal authorities. I question whether it rightly sits there, bearing in mind that the Bill proposes that the Secretary of State can make a separate set of provisions for parish councils. It seems to me that there are very good reasons for that, because we have to be rather careful about what template we are using for the purposes of referendums, so I question whether the insertion of the reference to a parish here is the right one, unless the intention is to eliminate Clause 56 altogether.
My Lords, on this point there is of course a fundamental difference between how parishes are viewed inside and outside urban areas. I understand all the misgivings as far as rural parishes are concerned and do not wish to follow along that line, but it would perhaps not be wise to add my noble friend's suggestion to the Bill. I point out that in the recent referendum in my own authority which I referred to, the area chosen for it was in fact the boundary of a parish because that ran across more than one ward. It is not right to write that into statute but it reinforces the point that I and other noble Lords made earlier: that some power to enable local authorities to define an area, which might or might not be a parish, would be a useful broad, localist and permissive power. I would not favour writing it into the Bill in this way but it may be one of the instruments and measures that a local authority ought to be allowed to choose other than a ward.
My Lords, I have a particular interest in this amendment because parishes in many rural communities are far more relevant than local authority or council boundaries. They are not only historic but often relate to particular communities in a way that local authority wards do not, certainly in my part of the country. That is because wards are driven by numbers, not by community. This seems a good and proper issue to raise. There is of course already the power for parishes to call their own referendums, so the query might be whether this is necessary because, if a community wanted it, one might argue that there is provision for it already.
However, the legislation here is making reference to particular issues relating to local authorities. Frankly, I therefore see more relevance to allowing a power in relation to a parish as a community than to having specific reference to the electoral division for the primary local authority. I would hope that the Minister can respond positively to the principle here, whatever the means might be to achieve it.
My Lords, I think that I can respond positively. I say to my noble friend and namesake that I do not know how big Goss Moor is, but Holbeach has a population of some 8,500 people in one parish. Some parishes are remarkably large and other parishes are remarkably small, so it is very difficult. One size, or system, fitting all is very difficult. There are provisions, of course, for a local referendum, or parish poll, under the provisions of the Local Government Act 1972, to which the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Goss Moor, has referred.
The amendment would include parishes in the definition of a “relevant area” as that applies to a principal local authority. We do not think that this is appropriate, particularly because we are looking at how we might look at referendums at parish level in legislation within the Bill and as a result of a consultative process, as I said before. Indeed, I mentioned to the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, that I foresaw his organisation being very much involved in this consultative process.
Our approach to local referendums is to enable referendums on local matters at the relevant council area, but for the issue at hand. If it is a district council matter, or a matter over which the district council has influence, the referendum can be held at the district council level, whether it be across one or more wards of the district, or the entire area of the district council, but it is the district council that is the triggering authority for this poll, other than having a parish poll. If it is a parish matter, we believe that a parish poll is the most appropriate method. We will discuss our intended approach to parish council referendums later, and I can assure noble Lords that the parish sector will be fully catered for. We want to see a modernised and proportionate local referendums regime for parishes, on which we will fully consult. I hope, therefore, that with these assurances my noble friend will withdraw his amendment.
My difficulty is that I do not know what that regime might be, or even what the Government are talking about. Whether the Minister will give a little more information when we touch briefly on Clause 56 later, I do not know, but I will not talk about that now.
Let me just give one example. In the parish of Laneshaw Bridge, which is in Pendle in the ward of Boulsworth, a huge issue that has split the village is the question of whether the village school should be very considerably expanded to take in a much larger area than the village. The village was split. Nobody knows what the majority opinion in the village is; what we know is that there were campaigning groups on both sides. Yet a referendum within Boulsworth ward relating to that issue—which would be a classic and typical example of a referendum—would be irrelevant, because the village is only one fifth or so of the entire ward. The rest of the ward consists of another much larger village, another couple of larger villages in a different parish, in which I live, and part of the town of Colne. Having the referendum in that arbitrary area would be irrelevant to knowing what the people of Laneshaw Bridge think.
I strongly support my noble friend on this. The issue is not whether the matter is one which lies with the local authority or with the parish—that is readily understood and, if it lies with the parish, the parish poll would suffice—but it may well be a matter which lies for decision with the local authority but only affects a small community. It is the nature of rural local authority wards that they often cover a number of communities, many of which would not be affected by the issue at hand, even though it is the local authority that is the decision taker. That is the issue that was not really responded to earlier.
I am grateful to my noble friend for making the point more strongly and better than I did. There is clearly an issue here and it is clearly one that will continue to be discussed. We look forward with interest to seeing the Government’s proposals for parishes, but the continuation of the point made by my noble friend Lord Taylor is: who pays for the referendum? If it is a district, county or unitary issue, surely that authority should pay for the referendum and the cost of it should not fall upon the parish council, which may well have a view on the matter and be involved in the discussions, but is not responsible in any way for the issue before the referendum. That is a very important matter.
The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, made the point that there is possible provision in the Bill for local authorities to define appropriate local areas which are not co-incident with ward boundaries. It seems to me that a provision that they should be one polling district or a collection of polling districts is one that ought to be looked at by the Government, because polling districts, by their very nature, already have the machinery in place for elections, yet polling districts in most wards are smaller than the wards of which they form part. I put that suggestion to the Government and, on that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 120H withdrawn.
Amendments 120J and 121 not moved.
Clause 43, as amended, agreed.
Clause 44 : The required percentage
121A: Clause 44, page 39, line 2, leave out “as follows” and insert “to subsection (2),”
Amendment 121A agreed.
Amendments 122 to 124A not moved.
124B: Clause 44, page 39, line 2, at end insert—
“(1A) Subject to subsection (2), “the required percentage” in section 43(1)(ba) means 1%.”
Amendment 124B agreed.
Amendment 124C not moved.
124D: Clause 44, page 39, line 3, after “(1)” insert “or (1A)”
Amendment 124D agreed.
Clause 44, as amended, agreed.
124E: After Clause 44, insert the following new Clause—
“Offence of paying for signatures
(1) A person commits an offence if the person makes a payment—
(a) to any person to carry out the collection of signatures on a petition under this section, or(b) to any person to organise any other persons to carry out the collection of signatures on a petition under this section.(2) A person who is guilty of an offence under this section is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.”
My Lords, this amendment addresses another issue of serious concern regarding the potential for abuse in this system. My noble friend Lord Greaves will deal with other aspects of abuse in other amendments in this group, but Amendment 124E deals with the ban that I believe is required on paying people to collect petition signatures to try to trigger these referendums. I am concerned about this potential for abuse because big money interests may be able to use and abuse the petition and referendum systems in order to gain undue influence in an unfair way and subvert other democratic safeguards.
I have seen the way in which this happens from time to time in the United States, where what they call “initiatives” are rather more common than perhaps they are in this country where we would call them referendums. I have seen examples, which I have been given by lobbying organisations, where a big company has decided that it wants to build something and make a lot of money from doing so, but it understands that the relevant local authority might consider, even if there is a desirable benefit to the community, that it is not a priority for that community to build such a project. Rather than try to persuade the local authority that that is what it should do, the company hires people to go around canvassing door to door and in shopping centres and persuading them to sign petitions. I know from my own experience of campaigning over many years that sometimes it is not hard to get a lot of people to sign something if you are quite a persuasive person. These lobbying companies hire persuasive canvassers to go door to door in areas with a lot of people, persuading them to sign sufficient petitions to get an initiative.
When the initiative then has to be agreed to because there is seen to be public demand for it, and not to agree to that public demand would be seen to be a problem for the local authority, then the moneyed interests hire the lobbying company to run direct mail campaigns and adverts in the local paper, persuading people that this is what should be voted for. When the initiative is successful, those interests benefit significantly in a commercial sense from something that has not really been proven in a democratic way to be the desire of local people, but where money has paid for the collection of petition signatures and has been very decisive in determining the outcome of the ballot. That is not at all the intention of the Government with this sort of process, but it could open up the democratic system to that sort of abuse. For those reasons, I beg to move.
I will speak to Amendments 129B and 129C, which are in this group. They refer to Clause 54, which refers to regulations about voting in, and the conduct of, referendums. Clause 54(6) states clearly:
“Regulations under this section may not include provision … about the limitation of expenditure in connection with a referendum … for the questioning of the result of a referendum by a court or tribunal”,
“creating criminal offences”.
The question here is: does that mean that established and understood election law, in these areas and in others, will not apply in the case of a local referendum? Will normal election law not apply? What redress does anyone have if it is believed that someone is rigging the referendum if there is a considerable degree of personation taking place—despite the complacency that there still is in many quarters, quite a bit of old-fashioned personation goes on at polling stations in some parts of the country—or the rigging of postal votes, which takes place on a frequent basis in some parts of the country and in any case is perfectly easy to do? If the system is that there is no criminal or other redress against this happening, the odds are that where some people think that the question behind the referendum is very important that this sort of thing will continue.
If there are freestanding referendums, that may simply be a matter for the referendum. However, it is quite clear that, for reasons of cost, where referendums are taking place councils will do their best to make sure that they do so at the same time as elections—probably on the first Thursday in May, whenever the local elections are taking place or European elections in June and so on. Under those circumstances, if I read the provisions of Clause 54 correctly, rules will apply to the election campaigns but some of them will not apply to the referendum campaigns taking place alongside them. Given what we all believe will happen— that in some cases referendums will be organised to assist election campaigning—the distinction between the two may not be all that obvious.
If I were campaigning in a local election and there was a referendum going on at the same time, I might well include reference to the referendum and what I thought people should do—both for and against it—in my election literature. Indeed, this happened on a large scale among all the parties during the AV campaign, but less so with the Labour Party because it could not make up its mind whether it was in favour or against. It happened on a large scale with the Conservative Party and to some extent among the Liberal Democrats. Leaflets were put out saying, “Vote for Joe Bloggs and, by the way, vote”—yes or no—“in the referendum campaign”. Or it was the other way around: leaflets went out which were 90 per cent “vote no” in the referendum campaign, and also “Vote for your local Conservative candidate”. I compliment their skill in doing that; it won them a lot of seats.
It is going to happen, certainly at local level. So what about rules like election law, such as the need for imprints on leaflets? Will that apply to referendum material? What about the rules about payment of canvassers? My noble friend Lord Rennard referred to the possible payment of canvassers for collecting petition signatures, but what about paying canvassers to go around and persuade people to vote one way or the other in a referendum, which is illegal in elections? What about offences relating to what you can and cannot do at the counting of the votes? What about offences relating to intimidation of voters? Particularly where there are joint elections, common sense suggests that there should be common rules. The provision in Clause 54 suggests that there should not. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain what it means and whether it needs some amendment before the Bill completes its passage through this House.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, made a point in moving the amendment about the payment to individuals collecting signatures. I would be slightly concerned that he, as an able organiser in the Liberal Democrats, may fall foul of such an amendment if he was paying employees of the party to undertake political activity that may include support for a referendum. I would hate to think that he may end up in jail as a consequence, so perhaps he could clarify the position.
Briefly, no problem seems to occur in elections. The paid staff of parties, as the noble Lord will well know, take part in elections, but it has never been considered an activity of paid canvassing. The activity of a large organisation like a big business deciding it wants to get something through and employing people specifically to sign the petition would be of a rather different order.
My Lords, I fear that I rather agree with the noble Lord opposite. There is always a risk in creating a new criminal offence—or a new offence in any case. I hope that my noble friend will resist the amendment of my noble friends. The example of a local newspaper—“Tear off a strip, sign our petition”— which might be delivered by paid delivery potentially gets one into quite difficult areas. The paid deliverer could actually be deemed to be collecting signatures for a petition.
There might be a perfectly innocent occasion where somebody says to a child or young person, “Come along and help me collect some signatures, and we’ll buy you what you have been wanting for some time”. That is a perfectly normal kind of thing that goes on in family life, not just in politics. I understand the concerns of my noble friend Lord Rennard about big business, as he puts it, but we may be creating another regulatory hammer if we went down this road. It would not be helpful and might have unintended consequences.
So far as the other amendments are concerned, my noble friend can obviously answer for the Front Bench. I do not want to go into my views on the Electoral Commission as that would detain us for too long, but at least Clause 54(7) states:
“Before making any regulations under this section, the Secretary of State must consult the Electoral Commission”.
I would have thought that the Electoral Commission was capable of giving the Secretary of State advice on the kind of matters that my noble friend Lord Greaves has raised.
My Lords, as a preliminary point I refer again to the issue raised this morning with regard to the Delegated Powers Committee, because Clause 54 gives the Secretary of State the right to make regulations. Given what he indicated this morning, I assume that the Minister is inclined to adopt the position of the Delegated Powers Committee; namely, that these regulations should be subject to affirmative resolution. I certainly hope that that would be the case. He nods assent, for which I am grateful.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, touched on an interesting issue when he talked about paying people to requisition a referendum. I do not know of a precise precedent but certainly an analogous situation arose not too long ago in Greater Manchester, where a large commercial concern, Peel Holdings, was, among others, very hostile to the notion of a congestion charging scheme for Greater Manchester. It launched a campaign in the metropolitan borough of Bury to call for a mayoral referendum in the hope and assumption that an anti-congestion charge mayor of whatever political affiliation would be elected, and because in the great scheme of things a single authority in Greater Manchester—only one authority—could veto the whole scheme, that would be sufficient to jettison this scheme, which the company felt was against its interests.
I understand that the company invested a considerable amount of time, energy and cash in securing the signatures to enable a referendum to be held. It was held and there was a low turnout—I recall that something like 11 per cent or so of people voted in the referendum for the holding of a mayoral election, which then took place. Happily, from my perspective, an equally small proportion of the electorate turned out to vote against having a mayor. That is an indication of the dangers that might arise if there was no restriction on what commercial interests might get up to in the context of securing local petitions. Of course, the difference is that that referendum was binding and other referendums would not be; nevertheless, there is a real danger in that regard. However, I take note of what the noble Lord, Lord True, has said—one must be careful about creating new offences. Although the matter is certainly worth exploring, I do not rush to an immediate view that creating another offence of this kind is necessarily the answer. Having said that, I find it difficult to think of a better solution, so one might have to have recourse to that.
I have an amendment in this group, the number of which escapes me, which relates to Clause 54(7) about the making of regulations, and would require the Secretary of State to consult not only the Electoral Commission but the Local Government Association as well. I hope that the Minister will accede to that. It seems sensible to me to involve the LGA in matters of this kind. However, I do not understand some of the provisions that Clause 54 makes for regulations to be made by the Secretary of State. This goes back to some of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, yesterday. Clause 54(4) states:
“Regulations under this section may make provision about—
(a) when, where and how voting in a local referendum is to take place;
(b) how the votes cast in a local referendum are to be counted”.
A simple assimilation of electoral law, in so far as that prescribes these matters, would surely be sufficient. The notion that detail of that kind needs to be made the subject of a Secretary of State’s regulation strikes me as absurd. On the other hand, if there are to be regulations, I do not quite follow the position of the noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord Greaves, and, for all I know, his colleagues on the Lib Dem part of the government Benches, who wish to take out of subsection (6) regulations,
“about the limitation of expenditure … for the questioning of the result of a referendum by a court or tribunal”,
“creating criminal offences”.
Those strike me—provided that we have the affirmative procedure—as matters that should or certainly could be included.
I beg the noble Lord’s pardon: that is right. I withdraw my last remarks and accept the noble Lord’s amendments to my comments. However, whatever we have in the regulatory framework, the key thing is that the minimum should be prescribed and that whatever is prescribed should be done in conjunction with the Local Government Association and subject to affirmative resolution.
My Lords, perhaps I may start by saying that the Government are inclined, as I indicated, to accept the concept of affirmative resolution for the regulations. I can also say that the inclination of the Government is for a light touch in this area. We have already seen that there are tensions between a rigorous procedure for the collection of names and the necessary legal restrictions placed on the conduct of elections. The difference between the two is that a referendum is not mandatory, it merely advises a local authority and it is therefore not unreasonable to say that it may be covered by a lighter touch than an election whose outcome is definitive, where the problems to which noble Lords have referred apply. I have spent a lifetime in active party politics, and I know how important it is to try to create a proper framework. I was grateful to both my noble friend Lord True and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for pointing out the problems that could arise if we tried to set up regulations that criminalised activities in collecting petition names, and the like.
Amendment 129E creates a criminal offence, and Amendment 129C broadens the Secretary of State’s regulating powers to allow the regulations to provide for referendum results to be questioned in court. The creation of criminal offences is simply unnecessary for a regime that is, effectively, non-binding.
One problem that the coalition is trying to deal with is the profusion of unnecessary criminal offences on the statute book. I suggest that the incurring of expenditure to pay someone to campaign to collect signatures falls well below the hurdle that needs to be cleared before persons should be at risk of receiving a criminal record.
I have not examined the situation fully, but my first impression was that the noble Lord, Lord Collins, might well be right, because the reason why it is possible to pay people to work in elections is that their fees are part of the election expenses. It could create problems if they were also involved in a referendum.
Amendment 129B expands the scope of the Secretary of State's power to make regulations on the conduct of referendums to include regulations about the limitation of expenditure in connection with a referendum. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is right about what the Bill states on that. We will be discussing the wider issues about publicity arrangements for referendums in a later group.
Clause 46(6)(b) distinguishes between the procedural regulations that may be made in respect of local referendums which are not binding and those which may be made in respect of binding referendums, such as whether to have an elected mayor. We intend that local referendums should be more light touch, given their non-binding nature. The intention behind the amendments may be to limit restrictions on authorities in connection with the question. In fact, the equivalent provision in regulations for binding referendums is used to impose spending limits on petition organisers and those opposing petitions, and they are invariably accompanied by criminal offences for breaching spending limits. We are not convinced that such requirements are necessary for this scheme of non-binding referendums.
We will discuss publication arrangements in a later group and our intentions on that issue. In the mean time, Amendment 129E, which, in hindsight may have been better grouped with Amendment 129D, seems to have little practical effect. It would remove the words “of the referendum” from Clause 55(8). These words may be considered unnecessary but they do not cause any harm and to a small degree remove any doubt that may exist. I cannot say that I am convinced that it is worth making the amendment.
The amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, would insert a statutory requirement to consult the Local Government Association in making regulations about voting in, and the conduct of, local referendums. The Electoral Commission is expressly included in the Bill as it is standard practice in all such electoral matters. I neglected to say in reply to the previous debate that we are consulting the Electoral Commission. However, I can assure noble Lords that we intend to consult widely before making regulations, which will include local government associations. I hope that noble Lords will see these non-binding referenda becoming a very different category from ordinary electoral law and I hope that with these assurances, my noble friend will withdraw the amendment.
Before my noble friend decides whether or not to divide the House, I should say that these are extremely important matters and we do not believe that the Government have given them the importance that they merit. Whether we like it or not they are all about the possibility for graft and corruption—perhaps not at the same level as for an election itself, but nevertheless graft and corruption over an important matter. If they are not important matters, why are we spending all this money having these referendums?
I just want to make two very brief points. First, within electoral law for elections there is a clear and well understood distinction between paying canvassers and paying people for doing other things, such as delivering leaflets, manning committee rooms, or whatever. You can pay helpers in elections but you are not allowed to pay canvassers. There is a growing area between the two but the distinction is well understood and by and large adhered to.
My second point, which is more fundamental, is the point I made about joint campaigns. It is inconceivable that there will not be joint campaigns of trying to get someone to vote for or against a referendum and an election campaign at the same time, with joint literature, posters and other things that money is spent on. Unless the regulations referring to the referendum are similar to those referring to the election, it will drive a coach and horses through the limits on election expenditure. There must be the same rules for the same two things if people are campaigning for the two things together in the same place at the same time. That is common sense otherwise it is a recipe for a huge amount of misunderstanding and chaos, and as I said, driving a coach and horses through some of the local election rules, not least on the limits on expenditure. That question needs a bit more thought by the Government.
Before anybody says anything else, may I pick up on something which my noble friend Lord Greaves said? I understand that it has not been raised, even though I admit that I have not been here throughout the debate. My question has been illustrated in what my noble friend was saying: what is the position of the party agent in all this? That question has not been specifically addressed. It appears that a lot of these referendum campaigns will be organised by political parties. What is the position then of the party agent who is paid? Who is regarded as paying him? If any member of the association or the Labour Party or whatever is regarded as paying the agent, then it seems to me that if the agent does anything to encourage or assist, he is in danger of falling foul of this clause. What is the answer?
I think the agent would be in danger of falling foul of this amendment, not this clause. That is an important distinction. The noble Lords, Lord True and Lord Collins of Highbury, join my noble friend Lord Newton of Braintree in pointing out the difficulties of the heavy hand of regulation.
My Lords, perhaps there is not an easy answer to the question just posed by the noble Lord, Lord Newton, but the point is well made that there are grey areas and some difficulties. When we are looking at this petition process and these referendum issues, we have to look rather more carefully than we have done up to now at how we avoid abuse within the system. From my noble friend Lord Greaves and the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, we have heard some genuine concerns about how the system could be open to abuse. We have also heard from the noble Lords, Lord True and Lord Collins, that there is no appetite for what might be considered to be further regulation or offences.
The position from these Benches, and why we are testing out these issues, is not that we want more regulation and more offences, but rather that we want some of the safeguards which properly apply in elections, to avoid abuse of the electoral system and, perhaps, situations in which people could say that pound notes can buy more influence than people’s votes. That is a fundamental principle of democracy. We try to have fair rules in elections; they are not perfect and are often grey. Many of us are trying to work to improve them, but we try to have some rules to make sure there is a balance in funding and safeguards to avoid people cheating. Some of those rules and regulations are important in elections and they should also be considered as relevant and necessary in the petition process and for these referendums.
I do not think we have necessarily got quite right the model of what we should do, on which basis I am happy to withdraw the amendment. However, all of us who are concerned must look further at this issue and consult further, as suggested in the amendment by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, on advice that may come to us from the Electoral Commission and the Local Government Association.
Amendment 124E withdrawn.
Clause 45: Request for referendum
Amendments 125 and 126 not moved.
Clause 45 agreed.
Clause 46 : Duty to determine appropriateness of referendum
Amendment 126ZZA not moved.
126ZA: Clause 46, page 40, line 3, at end insert—
“(6) Before determining whether it is appropriate to hold a local referendum under subsection (2), the principal local authority must notify—
(a) any person who is named in the petition or request,(b) any person who is the owner or occupier of any land to which the petition or request relates, and(c) any other person whom the authority considers to have an interest which is likely to be affected by any steps that the authority may take to give effect to the result of the referendum.”
My Lords, I am happy we should also discuss my Amendments 128EA and 129CA. So far in this discussion of referendums we have tended to see it almost in a bilateral way between the public, who might petition and support a referendum, and the local authority, which might be disposed to agree to hold a referendum and have to deal with the results. These amendments are concerned with the third party: a person or company whose activities may have been the cause of suggesting that there should be a referendum. Putting it briefly, they should be involved in some way in the process, being consulted at the different stages and having the opportunity to have their say. This is what these three amendments are about.
When we come to it later, the Bill is perfectly clear on how and why a referendum might be held. It is also clear that it would not be binding on the local authority, but the processes are not as clear as they should be. I will take the example of an airport. I have had the advantage of consulting the company that runs Gatwick Airport, but the issue could apply to similar projects and institutions around the country. Of course, if the proposal is of the major kind that comes within the purview of the Infrastructure Planning Commission, or the MIPU that will take its place under the Bill, there is a separate procedure: I will not touch on that.
In the case of airports, the level for application of the processes of the IPC is if a development would involve more than 10 million passengers a year. That is a pretty big hurdle. A great deal of what goes on—this may apply to power stations or even reservoirs, but will certainly encompass airports—including a great deal of the ongoing development that falls below that limit, will therefore have to be considered by the local authority.
I am not referring now to the question of planning, which we will deal with later when we debate the next clause. The question is whether a project may be put forward that has aroused opposition and may therefore provoke a referendum. Gatwick Airport is a good example because it exemplifies exactly what might be expected. Gatwick is the UK's second largest airport. As I have learnt in the course of my discussions, it has the busiest single runway in the world. That is an astonishing fact, but it is what I am told. The airport serves 200 destinations in 90 countries, with around 33 million passengers a year. The airport recently had a change of ownership. The new owners are very busy developing the airport so that its potential can be properly utilised for the benefit not only of the local economy but of the country as a whole. The airport provides around 25,000 jobs on campus and another 13,000 across the region. It generates a very large amount of wealth, as noble Lords may imagine.
The airport does not operate in a vacuum. It is surrounded by local communities and is close to a number of towns. The owners are very conscious of the need to be responsible developers and to take account of local opinion. They have always done that and I suspect that the new management are doing it rather better than their predecessors. Therefore, we are talking about how to achieve a balance between the very desirable objective in the Bill of giving local residents a bigger say in what happens in the areas in which they live, and giving investors the confidence that is necessary if they are going to develop their business. That is the issue. Hitherto we have been talking about the first aspect: the question of how local communities can have a say. The second, of course, is what these amendments are intended to address.
One should remember that a commercial institution like Gatwick Airport often has to work to extremely tight timetables. It has to raise finance and have regard to its regulator. An economically regulated airport such as Gatwick can face severe financial penalties if the targets set by the regulator are not met. Investors need the certainty that there will be no potential obstacles to meeting those timetables so they can be reasonably sure of avoiding the penalties.
How is this new system going to be applied to them? How are you going to deal with this? The purpose of my amendments, as I said at the beginning, is to provide the clarity which the Bill does not have at the moment. They would provide for a transparent consultation between a local authority and an affected third party—in this case the company running the airport—which might be named in a local referendum as to whether it is appropriate that a referendum should be held at all. Further, if a referendum is to be called that relates to it, it should be notified.
Finally, Amendment 129CA would ensure that a named third party—in this case the manager of the airport or it might be any of the other investors with ongoing development requirements—should be consulted before the local authority chooses whether to give effect to the result at all. We have already discussed that the referendum is not binding: it is a decision the local authority would have to take. All the clause asks is that the affected third party should have an opportunity to have a say and that the local authority should have regard to any representations.
It might be said that these things are so automatic they ought to happen already. I am sure that is not always the case. People can sometimes plough ahead. It may be an unpopular development. I have not been told, but I suspect that around major airports there are communities deeply hostile to what goes on there; it would not surprise me in the least. I used to live near Stansted Airport and, as we have all seen, the opposition to the expansion has been immense. There has been intense opposition. Every airport will have that but they need to be reasonably sure that the managers and the developers can have a proper opportunity to have their say and for their views to be taken into account.
That is what these three amendments do. They provide a level of safeguard against what one might call the unintended consequences of what is otherwise a desirable development. It is people having more of a say about what happens in their own areas. When I questioned the people from the airport they told me firmly, “We agree it is right and proper that local people should be able to express their views on issues specific to their area”. I come back to the point that it is a question of holding the balance. My amendments simply intend to provide reasonable procedures which would enable a better chance with the local authority holding the balance as it should. I beg to move.
My Lords, with respect to the noble Lord, the first amendment is an unnecessary addition to the responsibilities of local authorities. On the kind of issue the noble Lord has addressed, such as a very controversial issue like an airport or major development, it is inconceivable that a prospective developer would be unaware of a petition doing the rounds. On the other hand paragraph (b) of Amendment 126ZA says,
“any person who is the owner or occupier of any land to which the petition or request relates”.
I can think immediately of situations in my own ward where we have empty properties about which there is considerable concern. There might well be petitions coming to the local authority to do something about them but very often it is impossible to know who the owner of the property is or how to contact the owner. Again, that would create a significant burden and, with the best possible motive, it is overegging the responsibilities of the authority.
I have a little more sympathy with the after-the-event process that the noble Lord refers to in Amendment 129CA because it requires the authority to consult. There will potentially be the same issue on paragraph (b) but, in general, it is not unreasonable to require the authority to consult in a referendum those affected although, bearing in mind again that we are talking about non-binding referendums, this is a less significant issue than it would otherwise be. Nevertheless, it is good practice for an authority to consult if it is going to do that, and I see no harm in that provision. However, if the Government are minded to accept it, I urge that there be some qualification to paragraph (b) about the ownership or occupation of land, which may be very difficult to identify. On the other hand, paragraph (c),
“any other person whom the authority considers to have an interest”,
is so wide that I think it is a bit much. If the Government are at all minded to respond sympathetically to the noble Lord, and I hope they are in respect of the second point, it should really be combined to paragraph (a) and a modified paragraph (b). That would be my respectful suggestion.
I declare an interest as chief executive of London First, which includes businesses that may be affected by the provisions in this Bill.
I support these amendments as I consider them to be in the spirit of the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, gives a useful example in Gatwick Airport, but there is a wide range of third parties that may be affected by any referendum. When decisions are being taken, those impacted by them should be notified and consulted openly. It is right that local authorities consult those potentially affected about whether it is appropriate to hold a referendum at all, as well notifying them if it were to happen and consulting on what steps are taken afterwards. Referenda should be a positive tool and, to that end, they should be well considered and thoughtfully implemented if they are to have the best possible impact on communities. I hope the Minister agrees.
My Lords, I had not expected to speak on this amendment, but I think the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, raises a very valid point. I live within what is known as the Gatwick Diamond economic area, so I know very well what he is referring to. I know of situations where, for instance, residential development takes place near to industrial premises through normal course of development and re-use. Gatwick Diamond, along with many other areas, is now a 24/7 operation. It is near enough to coastal ports for large lorries to be coming along and near enough to all sorts of aviation-related and other downstream industries.
Local residents may not much like 44-tonne lorries coming along in the wee small hours of the morning. I can quite see that, but it is not fanciful at all to suppose that they might not wish to procure a cessation via triggering a referendum with a view to protecting what they see as their interests. Nor is it a planning-only issue because it may relate to a whole raft of regulatory functions for which local authorities and other bodies have responsibility. While I cannot vouch that the wording that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, uses is cohesive, I think there needs to be some regard for the economic consequences of what is being sought by a referendum. It seems that a referendum can be formulated on quite a narrow premise. If that is the case, it is quite possible for it to concern things of a much broader spectrum. It is worthy of consideration by the Minister.
Does the noble Lord not agree that in matters of the significance and complexity to which he and the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, have referred, a referendum is probably the least effective way, in terms of time, of drawing the matter to the attention of the local authority? There are ways of doing that through petitions or by addressing local councillors through the local media that would be much quicker and more likely to have an effect than the necessarily rather cumbersome processes that would be involved in a referendum. In those circumstances, therefore, is there perhaps less urgency and potency in the noble Lord’s amendment than might otherwise have been the case?
In response to the very wise comments of the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, it may well be a cumbersome way of doing it but the point is that we do not yet know what the precise trigger is going to be, or the subject matter. The provisions of the Bill cover a very large spectrum of possibilities and we are effectively empowering the Secretary of State to make orders. It is legitimate to lay down a marker as to what the parameters might be—I suspect that is all the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, is doing at the moment—and just to sound a word of warning. It is timely in that context.
I am going to speak in support of what my noble friend Lord Beecham said. It is the mention of airports that I cannot resist, of course, because we have one in Luton. I know how important it is to the local community and what a generator of jobs it is. In many ways, airports are the organisations least likely to need the measure that the noble Lord proposes because they have consultative committees anyway so there is automatically a wide engagement with the community. The principle of somebody who is potentially on the receiving end of a referendum or a petition knowing about that and the local authority having to make a decision to engage with them seems to be entirely reasonable. What we are balking at is that the specific amendment is a little too prescriptive and takes us too far down an unfortunate path. However, we are all well aware of the challenges that airports in particular face.
My Lords, I apologise to my noble friend but tempted again I have been—on this occasion just to show how even-handed I am—to join in a little bit with the noble Lords, Lord Beecham and Lord McKenzie, with due apologies to my noble friend Lord Jenkin. It is the third arm of this that worries me most. It says,
“any other person whom the authority considers to have an interest which is likely to be affected by any steps that the authority may take to give effect to the result of the referendum”.
It is not just airports. Major commercial developments, for example, have effects over a wide area. Leaving aside Stansted, about which I know a good deal, and which would certainly be said to have effects over 30, 40, 50 or 100 or more miles, Lakeside at Thurrock has had effects on shopping centres all over Essex. It is unimaginable that the local authority would really have to consult the people of Thurrock, Chelmsford, Colchester, Braintree and Brentwood—to name the Secretary of State’s constituency and indeed that of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. We need some caution before going down the path scripted in this amendment. That is all I would say. There may be merit in the purpose but the wording needs very careful consideration.
I have been rather eager to stand because I feel that this gets to the nub of the issue. I am not entirely sure whether my noble friend Lord Jenkin, who has presented these amendments, is the same noble Lord who just the other day was urging me to trust local people to run these affairs. Localism is the name of the Bill; localism is what it is about. I urge him to read his own speech in Hansard to realise why it is that the Government do not want to bind this policy up. If any organisation of significance feels that it is vulnerable to popular opinion and is so out of touch with local opinion that it is not able to realise that a referendum is being carried on which might affect its interests, it deserves all the expression of popular opinion that may come its way. I am sorry to be so frank but I am motivated by the nature of this argument.
I do not think that the noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, was in the Chamber when I introduced government amendments earlier today which excluded planning applications from the referendum process. That is very important to understand in this context.
I am most grateful. I take on board what the noble Baroness said but noble Lords opposite and my noble friend Lord Newton have made it clear that this process should not be so burdensome that it kills off the very expression of local opinion that we want to generate.
As regards the amendments tabled by my noble friend, I share his concerns that no person should find himself featuring in a referendum without an opportunity to make representations on the matter. But that I am sure is in the nature of these things and the dialogue within local communities. I understand that my noble friend is using the word “person” in the strictly legal sense of meaning company and corporate activity. In my estimation, it would be a rare case, as I have said, that a referendum will in practice concern a situation where people are totally unaware of the issues that are subject to a referendum.
Similarly, in deciding whether to give effect to a referendum result, the local authority will have regard to the need to balance the views of all interested groups. It will have regard to the economic interests of the area as perceived by it as a local authority and as elected representatives. To take such decisions is what local government has to do all the time. If there was any doubt that it would be appropriate for authorities to consult people directly affected by referendums, I hope that what I have said will dispel that. We believe that the amendments are unnecessary burdens on authorities and I hope that my noble friend will not press them.
I am grateful to all those who have expressed their views so frankly on this group of amendments. Of course, this is intended primarily to raise the issue and there have been a number of quite forceful responses. I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, and the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, for their support. Nevertheless, in response to my noble friend on the Front Bench, I feel myself in a sense wanting to say touché. Of course, I am not seeking to impose centrally or to tell local authorities the details of how they should do this. But it is part of the function of central government to protect local communities and ratepayers against possible abuse of processes by local government. One would always say that. But it does not need the great mass of legislation in this Bill.
Having said that, I am sure that those who have advised me on this will study the issue carefully and will decide whether it will be necessary to come back to this on Report. We will have quite a lot and it may be that this will not achieve enough support at that stage but we will look at it. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 126ZA withdrawn.
Clause 46 agreed.
Clause 47 : Grounds for determination
126A: Clause 47, page 40, line 8, leave out subsection (2)
My Lords, I have been listening to the wonderful words of the Minister about how important it is that local government should not be encumbered by lots of detailed rules and regulations and thinking that at least we are on the same wavelength. Tongue in cheek, I wonder if he will take a pristine copy of the Bill home with him this weekend, and a nice big red pen, and annotate the Bill in appropriate ways to strike out a large number of the detailed regulations and the 140-odd provisions for yet more detailed regulations for local authorities, and hand it to a civil servant next week and say, “This is your job for a week; get rid of it”. I live in hope.
I move Amendment 126A and the seven amendments in my name and that of my noble friend that are set out in this group together with Amendment 128A, as I announced earlier. There is a useful Labour amendment in the group but I will let the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, speak to it.
Clause 47 is an important clause because it sets out the grounds on which the council should make its decision when it receives a petition or indeed a request from a member about whether a referendum takes place or not. This is not a trivial decision. We have heard that referendums across London might cost many millions of pounds; but for any big councils in big cities, we are talking about millions of pounds. Even for smaller councils, it can be an important item in their budget, or one that is not in their budget, which nevertheless they have to find a way of covering. In the present financial circumstances this might well mean cutting other useful services.
This is a list. Whenever we put forward lists, we are always told by the Government to be very careful because, if we put things in the list, they are in, and if we do not put them in the list, people might think they are not in. In this case, we know that they are not in because Clause 47(1) says:
“A principal local authority may only determine”—
I emphasise “only determine”—
“that it is not appropriate to hold a local referendum in response to a petition or request on one or more of the following grounds”.
The list in Clause 47 is extremely important because it ties the hands of the local authority. It does not say to it, as the Minister has pointed out, that if it is in the list, it cannot have a referendum; however, it provides grounds by which a referendum can be refused. Regardless of whether we agree with referendums, I think that everybody agrees that we do not want a proliferation of them. We do not want dozens of referendums taking place all over the place. We want them held on important and useful things.
These grounds are vital. Amendment 126A refers to the first ground. It is a probing amendment to find out what the words mean. Clause 47(2) says:
“The first ground is that the authority thinks that action taken to promote or oppose the referendum question is likely to lead to contravention of an enactment or a rule of law”.
When I read this, I thought, “What does it mean?”. The phrase,
“action taken to promote or oppose the referendum question”,
refers to something happening during the referendum campaign. It is not about the question itself—what the effect would be of carrying out what the referendum wants brought about; it is about action taken during the campaign which,
“is likely to lead to contravention of an enactment or a rule of law”.
I can only think that this refers to the possibility of public disorder of some sort. Will the Minister say what the Government think it refers to? It is very difficult to see how this could be made to stick if it was challenged, because how would you know that the referendum question would be likely to lead to an unruly campaign? Alternatively, what else does it refer to? If it refers to a referendum question that is, for example, overtly racist, it would be easy to reject it, but the chance of getting such a referendum question is very small indeed. Racists who want to use a referendum to promote their cause are going to be more careful about how they word the question. So this is a probing amendment to find out what it means.
Amendments 126B and 126C challenge the word “influence”, and again are probing amendments. We suggest that this should be brought in more tightly to a council’s powers; that is, the things it can do. Even the general power of competence might be very wide. It is difficult to think of things that people might want to hold a referendum on but over which the council does not have some sort of influence. I suppose that a referendum about the melting of the Arctic ice cap might be thought out of order, but even then it might be tied to the council’s climate change policies, so it is difficult to think of areas where the council has absolutely no influence. Some clarification of what the influence of a council is, in this sense, would be helpful.
Amendment 126D refers to subsection (4)(b):
“a principal local authority or a partner authority has an influence over a matter if the authority can affect that matter by the exercise of any of its general or particular functions”.
That is very wide indeed, and I assume that it includes the new general power of competence. Is that true, because it means that it does go very wide? Amendment 126E seeks to insert a new subsection:
“The third ground is that the action requested by the question is unlawful or discriminatory, or would contravene the authority’s codes relating to equality of treatment or its financial regulations”.
Other noble Lords may think of other things that should be included, but this is clear. Surely it should be laid down that if the action requested by the petition and the referendum question is actually unlawful or clearly discriminatory against an ethnic group, the disabled, men, women or anyone else, and would contravene all the codes an authority has on equality of treatment, or if the council could not do something because of its financial regulations, then it should be able to be thrown out without question. Indeed, anything which it would be impossible for the council to do but is being asked for in a referendum should be more clearly set out.
I turn to Amendment 126F. However, as the Minister has already moved an amendment today, this amendment is not needed, and we are grateful for that. Amendment 126H refers to the grounds set out in the Bill. At the moment they do not seem to be sufficiently wide. A council ought to be able to refuse a referendum if it judges that it concerns a trivial matter and spending money on it would simply not be worth the candle. Similarly, if the council or someone else is doing something anyway, the referendum would be a waste of time because the decision has been made. The Government have already moved an amendment to deal with repetition which provides that another referendum on the same subject cannot take place for four years. That, too, is extremely welcome. Our definition of “disproportionate” is that the cost of holding a referendum is excessive when bearing in mind the cost of carrying out the proposal in question. If a council is being asked to spend £80,000 to hold a referendum when to do what the referendum is asking for would cost only £15,000, it is a pointless waste, whether or not the council wishes to do it.
Finally, we suggest that the fifth ground for the decision is that it is not appropriate because what is being asked for is the allocation of a disproportionate level of resource in one area when it is absolutely clear to the council that it is either not practical due to financial constraints or it would be unfair; that is, it would be possible but it would mean taking resources from existing schemes and services to put into a particular scheme or service that was being requested by an area in a way that would not be equitable across the authority. Knowing that before the referendum takes place, the authority can show that it is not financially viable and that holding a referendum would be a waste of everybody’s time and money.
These amendments may not be perfect but the criteria that the Government are putting forward at the moment in this clause are not sufficient to give a council enough flexibility to carry out the kind of localist decision-making that the Minister talked about not long ago—on a common-sense basis, without holding referendums which will simply waste a lot of time and money and not achieve anything. I beg to move.