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Local Elections (Ordinary Day of Elections in 2014) Order 2013

Volume 747: debated on Wednesday 24 July 2013

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Local Elections (Ordinary Day of Elections in 2014) Order 2013

Relevant document: 7th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments

My Lords, we are considering today the draft of an order to move the date of the local government elections in England in 2014 from Thursday 1 May to the same date on which elections will be held across the United Kingdom for the European Parliament. The elections to the European Parliament in 2014 will be held between 22 and 25 May. In the UK we are planning to hold these elections on Thursday 22 May, and an order under Section 4 of the European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002 will be made in due course.

If Parliament approves the draft order before us today, the 2014 election date for 160-odd principal councils in England would be moved—that is, all the London boroughs and metropolitan councils and more than 90 shire and unitary district councils. The order would also move the elections in around 250 parish councils across England. In addition, as a result of this order moving the ordinary day of election, the elections for directly elected mayors to be held in 2014, in Hackney, Lewisham, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Watford—I feel a bit like a train announcer here—will also be moved and held at the same time as the European parliamentary elections.

This is an important change. All electors in the UK will be eligible to vote in the European elections, and 73 Members of the European Parliament will be returned. More than 23 million people will be voting in the local elections scheduled for 2014. That is just over 40% of the electorate. Approximately 4,000 seats on principal councils will be contested. The order has no effect outside England; in 2014 there are no local elections for councils in Scotland or, indeed, Wales.

Following agreement among member states, the date of the 2014 European parliamentary election is being moved from 5 to 8 June to the period of 22 to 25 May. This is to avoid a clash with the Pentecost holiday, which could impact on electors’ availability to vote across member states. This will therefore mean that the UK European Parliament election will be held on Thursday 22 May 2014.

It is appreciated that the arguments about combining local and European elections are finely balanced, but on this occasion we have decided that it is right to bring forward this order so that the two elections can be combined. The Government are clear that, with the European parliamentary elections on 22 May, just three weeks from the date on which the local elections would have been held, the case for moving the date of the local elections and combining them with the European ones is strong. Were the period between the elections longer, the decision might be less clear-cut. I stress that this does not necessarily create a precedent for any future set of elections.

Our aim in all of this must be that we consider the voters’ interests above all other considerations. If the local election date were not moved, there would be two elections within three weeks. In such circumstances the balance of argument, in terms of minimising inconvenience and confusion for voters and of ensuring that the polls are soundly and efficiently administered, lies in favour of moving the date of the local elections and combining the polls.

I want to talk through one or two arguments about things that would occur if we did not hold these elections together. For example, the start of the European election period will overlap with the end of the local election period. This could be confusing for voters —for example, a few days before voting in the council’s elections, voters might receive a new poll card with different details for the European election, and postal votes for the European parliamentary election would be arriving with voters during the week of polling day at the local elections. Anyone who has been involved in elections at any level knows the challenges when you knock on the door and find that people have received different cards for different elections.

Another argument to be put forward is one of resources. As we look at how we can make savings across the piece, it is important that we look at what savings can be realised here. There would be increased costs for others such as political parties and the Electoral Commission in providing entirely separate voter awareness campaigns if we were not to combine the two elections; for example, in contacting voters and in canvassing. The Electoral Commission estimates that holding the 2014 elections together would save £0.95m from its public awareness campaigns budget alone.

There may be difficulty in finding polling stations, as well as in hiring polling stations and staff. Many schools host polling stations. Would we be looking to close schools for two days? All these factors I mention briefly because they strengthen the argument for holding the two elections together.

It is of course true that the procedures become more complex the more electoral events are held on the same day and the more polls are combined, but, on balance, this is preferred to the difficulties and duplication of effort and resource involved in running separate elections within a few weeks of each other.

In addition, experience of combined elections is now high among returning officers and we are confident that the elections will be run successfully together. European parliamentary elections and local elections have been combined in the past without undue problems arising, and I see no reason for that to be different this time. As I have just pointed out, our own electoral staff are more much competent and can converse effectively with those who seek guidance on different ballot papers in terms of what they need to do—though not so much in terms of where to put their cross.

We are not of course proposing to move the local elections in 2014 without consulting those who are most affected and who have specialist knowledge of elections and electoral matters. On 26 March, the Government published a consultation document inviting views on whether we should, subject to parliamentary approval, move the date of the English local elections from Thursday 1 May 2014 to the same day as the European parliamentary election. That consultation closed on 13 May, by which time we had received 155 responses. This included representations from the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Local Government Association and some 64 councils.

While the consultation shows that there are mixed views on moving the date, some two-thirds of the 155 responses, including that from the Electoral Commission, favoured the change of date. The Explanatory Memorandum which accompanies the order summarises consultees’ views and sets out the Government’s response to the consultation and provides the rationale for the change.

Concerns were raised about the increased complexities in the administration of elections and the risk of voter confusion. For that reason, the view was expressed by some that the local elections should not be moved. There were also concerns that such a move would weaken the democratic mandate of local government, as the public focus would inevitably be drawn towards national issues with the importance of local issues being overlooked. It was felt that a proper debate on the separate issues of Europe and local public services would be prevented.

We do not take these concerns lightly, but, after careful consideration based on the responses that we received from, among others, the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators and local authorities, which are responsible for administering elections, the Government are confident that local authorities and the suppliers they work with will have the capacity to manage local and European elections held on the same date in May 2014.

I am also sure that sufficient public awareness work will take place to reduce risk of voter confusion both at the ballot box and when distinguishing between the different issues on which they are being asked to vote. We should not underestimate the intelligence of the electorate to grasp the issues and to be discerning at the polls. Indeed, it could be argued that holding two polls at the same time is likely to increase, rather than decrease, interest in both sets of issues. In its response, the Electoral Commission agreed that the balance of argument lay with the date of the local elections being moved. This view was equally shared by the Association of Electoral Administrators. The Local Government Association and many councils also supported the move to elections on the same day.

This order also addresses consequential issues. It contains the necessary provisions that will enable elections to parish councils to take place alongside the principal council and European elections on 22 May. It extends the term of office for sitting councillors and mayors, although for no more than three weeks, which is an issue that I raised with officials. It provides that a by-election will not be held where a casual vacancy arises in the office of councillor within six months of the European parliamentary election held in 2014. It also provides for annual meetings of joint authorities and parish councils to take place at a date later than currently required by statute, given the later date of the local elections, in particular for the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority.

In conclusion, the balance of argument is such as put forward in the order, which is both sensible and pragmatic. There are good reasons to hold both elections on the same day. I commend this order to the Committee.

My Lords, Liberal Democrats in this House have no objection to this order and are quite happy to support its passage. However, it raises one or two issues about the principle of joining elections together, which I will come to shortly.

I ought to declare an interest—not because I think I have one, because I do not think I have—but I remember when we spent a lot of time in this Room 10 years ago debating elections, which turned out to be joint elections, where there were all-postal vote pilots in some of the northern regions of this country. I took part in those debates, which were well in advance of the elections. There was a formal complaint afterwards from the Labour Party, which wrote to the authorities in this House asking that I should be dealt with in an appropriate manner—perhaps taken to the Tower, I do not know—because I had not declared an interest, because at those elections I turned out to be not only an election agent but a candidate, and indeed got elected to the local council.

The Labour Party has enough problems on its hands at the moment and I do not want to create more, and more time and expense for it in writing letters of complaint, so I will be clear—although I do not think it is an interest—that it is quite likely that I shall be an agent in the local elections next May for at least some candidates, although my seat is not coming up. So that saves the Labour Party all that time and effort and it can worry about its membership rules, trade unions and the rest of it instead.

The consultation on these proposals was quite interesting. The explanation of it in the Explanatory Memorandum is interesting. It seems that about a third of the people who responded in fact suggested that the elections should be kept separate. They put forward what I think are perfectly respectable reasons, such as that,

“combining the elections would weaken the democratic mandate of local government, since the focus of the elections will inevitably not be on local issues, and would dilute localism”.

Now there is a thought. I do not think that is true, actually. Certainly, in the part of the world I live in, where there are combined European and local elections, the local elections tend to have a higher profile than the European elections. One of the arguments for combining them is that people who vote in the local elections might not usually vote in the European elections and that will put the European turnout up—and vice versa.

It is not set out in the Explanatory Memorandum but the word on the grapevine is that many of the organisations and persons who objected to combining the elections were actually local Conservative associations, which are worried about precisely that. They are concerned that in the European elections lots of people who normally do not bother to vote in the council elections will go out and vote for UKIP because they read the Daily Mail or the Daily Express, or whatever other reasons they may have, and this will cause problems for the Conservatives in the local elections. That is a problem for the Conservative Party; it is not one about which we are too bothered. However, it is interesting that there is this confusion.

There are two problems with combining elections, although this year the arguments in favour are very good. One is that the national campaign and the discussion of the issues in the media will be biased very strongly towards one of the elections, which might mean that local elections are not genuine local elections, as they ought to be. The second problem is that voters will be confused, will not know what they are doing and will not be able to make sense of the different ballot papers and voting systems. That is nonsense, and an insult to the intelligence of electors. The combination of different electoral systems in Scotland has substantially put that argument to bed. It is not true, although I remember canvassing in the first European elections of this nature 10 years ago. When people saw me coming, they would wave these big ballot papers at me and say, “Can you explain all these things? Who are these parties?”. We had mini-seminars in the street in that sunny June. However, by and large, people cope.

The real problem will come not with the European elections but the year after, in 2015, when yet again local elections will be combined with the general election. That is the great problem with combining elections. Inevitably, the general election takes over and people campaigning in local elections find it much more difficult to counter what people think of as the real election. Of course, that is now set out in a statute that states that local elections are on the first Thursday in May, and the Fixed-term Parliaments Act states that general elections are on the first Thursday in May. I hope that, sooner or later, general elections will move to where they used to be, in September or October, and the two will be separate. However, that is not something we can do anything about today, and I am very happy to support the order.

My Lords, I have been an election agent for some 40 years. This is not something that we have not done in the past, and it is something that we should manage quite well in future. I have managed five elections at the same time, in different areas of a constituency, so I know the complications. However, any good election agent should be able to manage this. The only difficulty I have ever encountered is in the division and declaration of expenses. Will there be advice for election agents on the way to divide up expenses?

My Lords, I thank the Minister for explaining the order. As he will know, the Labour Party responded to the consultation and supported the combination of elections. In 2004 and 2009, we similarly required the local elections to be combined with elections to the European Parliament. Therefore, it would be odd if we did anything other than support the order, particularly given the Minister’s point about the short period between the planned dates.

The supportive comments as set down in the Explanatory Notes are ones that we broadly endorse. We note that the order has the support of the Electoral Commission, the LGA, SOLACE, the Electoral Reform Society and the Association of Electoral Administrators. We are in good company. As the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, explained, the Lib Dems have no objections either. I was delighted that the noble Lord took the opportunity to avoid any confusion over his possible role as an election agent. I am sure that that will save the Labour Party a great deal of time. I was interested to hear the noble Lord’s comments on UKIP. We will have to see. My noble friend Lady Golding made the point that we have done it in the past and it would be odd if we could not support the order today, which we do. My noble friend has raised an important point around the declaration of expenses.

The point has been made that returning officers and local authorities are now experienced in having more than one election on the same day. The research for the commission shows that the public, too, can cope with multiple elections even where there is more than one voting system in play. We note that the commission plans to encompass the combination of polls in its public awareness campaign, and we of course support this and believe that it is very important. I do not think that I will attempt to trouble the Minister further. We support this order.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, also noted his great concern for both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party. However, we rise to the challenge, and if it is UKIP or anyone else, if I may get political for a moment, I say, “Bring it on; we will see you during the election”.

I have a couple of brief points in response to some of the comments. It is also important for the record, when comparing statistics on voter turnout, to note that in 2006—which I remember well, as someone who was then elected to a local authority—we were very concerned about the low voter turnout. We then saw a voter turnout of 37%. This contrasts with 2010, when there was a double-header and it was held with the general election, with a voter turnout of 62.6%. At a time when we need to encourage more people to exercise their right to vote, it is useful to see that when we have combined elections it has resulted in a higher voter turnout.

A small point was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Golding, about electoral agents. Of course, I bow to her great expertise and experience across the field with the elections she has managed. Of course, there will be specific advice from the Electoral Commission on all relevant matters.

I once again thank all noble Lords who have participated in the debate.

Motion agreed.