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Combined Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (Amendment) Order 2022

Volume 826: debated on Monday 5 December 2022

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Combined Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (Amendment) Order 2022.

My Lords, I will also speak to the draft Local Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2022, and the draft Police and Crime Commissioner Elections and Welsh Forms (Amendment) Order 2022.

These instruments were laid before this House on 1 and 3 November 2022. If approved and made, they will amend existing secondary legislation to take account of a change made by the Elections Act 2022. That change was to bring in first past the post voting for the election of mayors and police and crime commissioners, replacing the supplementary vote system, which is currently used for those elections. The change in principle was expressly tested during the passage of the Elections Act by an amendment brought to a vote on Report, and this House determined that the change should remain part of the Act.

The statutory instruments before us today are an essential consequence of that change. Elections to the roles of combined authority mayor, local authority mayor, and police and crime commissioner all rely on similar provisions in legislation for their conduct, forms and ballot papers. For this reason, we are considering these three statutory instruments amending those provisions together today.

For elections to be conducted consistently and fairly, it is necessary for secondary legislation to prescribe their conduct and to provide templates for many of the key documents that will be used in those elections. These measures will provide support to council officers and act as an assurance to the voting public: everywhere these elections are held, they are undertaken using the same ballot papers, with no variation in the form of that ballot paper from one place to the next.

Under first past the post, mayoral and PCC elections will no longer require a second round of counting in the circumstances where no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote. These statutory instruments will amend legislation to reflect the new, simpler count process. Ballot papers are changing too, showing one column of boxes against the listed candidates, with voters directed to put a cross in the box next to a single choice. Detailed instructions for the printing of ballot papers and forms, and instructions for postal voting, are also amended to reflect the change to first past the post.

Without these statutory instruments being approved and made, election officers will not be able to effectively deliver elections for these roles. The provision of the Elections Act 2022 making this change is now in force and the change will first apply to any mayoral or PCC elections or by-elections held on or after the ordinary election day in May 2023. That is 4 May 2023, being the first Thursday in May. An instrument subject to the negative resolution procedure, making similar changes for elections to the Mayor of London, was made on 26 October and laid before Parliament on 31 October. That instrument is now in force and will first apply to any by-election or elections held on or after 4 May 2023.

In drafting these instruments, my department and the Home Office have consulted the Electoral Commission on the text and we are grateful to it for its technical comments, which we have taken into account.

In conclusion, these instruments are essential to ensure that council officers can properly implement the move to first past the post voting for elected mayors and police and crime commissioners. That change, which Parliament has approved, will mean easier voting for these posts, with more straightforward counting of votes and with clearer, quicker results. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for setting out the instruments so clearly. She has already answered one of my questions.

I have always been in favour of combined authorities and the devo deals that we have been seeing. I realise that this is beyond the scope of these instruments, but it has brought new dimensions of government and administration to swathes of the countryside. I applaud that. This has been happening not only in urban areas but in rural areas too. Can the Minister indulge us by updating the Committee on where we are on devolution deals—on Cornwall and Yorkshire, for example? I simply do not know. I am happy for this to be done in writing, particularly as it is beyond the scope of these instruments, if she cannot do so now.

I will not delay the Committee long. I had one more substantial question related to today’s orders and regulations. I appreciate that they are largely about first past the post for combined authorities and local government, which is consistent with the referendum held on voting systems under the coalition Government. However, in the United Kingdom today, we have myriad different electoral arrangements, particularly in Wales, where we seemingly have some anomalies, such as the voting age for local elections now being 16 while for police and crime commissioners it is 18. Can my noble friend the Minister say something about the Government’s thinking across the board?

Westminster retains some important legislative and administrative rights in relation to electoral arrangements, which now seem to be a smorgasbord of different positions, particularly in Wales, where the Senedd elections are done by a form of proportional representation—the additional member system—while police and crime commissioner elections are first past the post. Local government is now partly first past the post, but local authorities can, if they want, go down a different route with the single transferrable vote. There are some inconsistencies. Can the Minister say something on that? I am most grateful.

My Lords, may I pursue a slightly different issue, in relation to the Gould principle? As the Minister identified, these instruments would first be implemented on 4 May next year. I raise this not solely because of these orders and regulations but in relation to the recent change that, in England, moved the requirement for signatures for nominations for local government elections from 10 to two. This change was actively supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, from the Labour Benches, and the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, from the Liberal Democrat Benches. We welcomed the change, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it cannot apply to by-elections before 4 May because the Gould principle has been applied.

For the benefit of my noble friend, I identify the Gould concerned as Ron Gould, rather than the other Goulds it might be. For the sake of brevity, this is a limited quote from the Gould report of 2007. It said, on the question of six months:

“If, as proposed, a Chief Returning Officer is appointed for Scotland”—

the Gould report related to Scottish elections—

“a clause might be added to the provision permitting the time period to be waived by the CRO following an assessment of the legislation’s operational impact.”

When the Secretary of State made a report to the Commons on the Gould report, he said:

“Provided suitable safeguards can be found, as Mr. Gould’s report encourages, I am prepared to accept that recommendation for elections to the Scottish Parliament.”—[Official Report, Commons, 23/10/07; col. 166.]

That recommendation was that six months would apply but could be waived in certain circumstances.

I am concerned that we are seeing, in effect, a concreting and misinterpretation of that six-month rule, when it is not necessary on some occasions. It would be helpful to EROs and government in general to speed up that process. I am not asking the Minister to comment in detail at this stage on the Gould report and the principle, but I want to put on record my concern about what was originally intended to be a flexible principle and is now beginning to develop into an inflexible one.

My Lords, I start by referencing my interests as a councillor in Kirklees and a vice-president of the Local Government Association. I will speak about three areas: the principle of the proposals, the practicalities and accountability. I appreciate that the passing of the Elections Act made these changes inevitable and I am not opposing them today, but it is worth pointing out some of the consequences of what is being done.

The Minister cited the 2019 Conservative manifesto commitment, also mentioned in the Explanatory Memorandum,

“to support the First Past the Post system”.

It does not say anything about changing back to first past the post. The 2011 referendum was not about all elections having the alternative vote system, only parliamentary elections, so citing that example for this instance is not fair—it does not support the argument. If the Government want to make a change, they should just say so and not try to fluff it up with stuff that is not accurate.

The Explanatory Memorandum also states that moving to this system

“makes it easier for the public to express a clear preference”.

I suppose it depends on what is meant by “a clear preference”. I would not consider 40% a clear preference, which is more than likely the outcome of the changes being made. In my view—and, I think, in most people’s—a clear preference would mean a person achieving over 50% of the vote, one way or another.

The only European country that uses first past the post is Belarus. Here we are, regressing to an electoral system so out of favour in European democracies that it is used only in a dictatorial country where the election was overtaken by a coup. I suppose what I am saying is that it is a backward step.

The third principle being argued here is that first past the post reduces complexity. Voters are cleverer than we give them credit for. They can vote in many different ways. I think I have attended all the mayoral elections in my part of the world, and the number of spoiled ballot papers, which is the example used in the arguments for these changes to say that the method is difficult, is minimal. More often than not, spoiled ballot papers show voters expressing very clear views about the election altogether—I will not quote some of the comments I have seen. It is not about failing to understand the voting system; it is about not being happy with how it is done at all, or the purpose of it.

The next argument is that it will save money. This was a struggle. The argument is that it will save about £1.7 million over 10 years across the whole of England and Wales. You are pushing an argument a bit when you get to that stage. To give an example of the number of spoiled ballot papers, I could not find the full election results—including the spoiled ballot papers, turnout and so on—for the last West Yorkshire mayoral election in 2021, but I found them for one of the districts. Out of roughly 80,000 votes cast, only 600 were spoiled, in various ways. That is fewer than 1%—more or less what it is for most elections.

The Government are making arguments about saving money and time—that is pushing it as well; I have attended all the counts for these elections, and they all get done in the periods set by election administrators. They argue that it helps people understand, that it will not be complex and that it will save money and time—all very flimsy arguments, as the supporting evidence shows.

If the Government want to go back to first past the post, so be it. It will have a knock-on effect on the way mayors in particular but also police and crime commissioners will be viewed by their residents. At the moment all mayors, because of the way the votes are redistributed, attract more than 50% of the vote. There is a legitimacy which will no longer be there if, as in West Yorkshire, first past the post gives the currently elected mayor just 40% of the vote. If she gets elected on that figure, those of us who did not cast our vote for her will not necessarily regard her as speaking for all of us, because she will not. If someone in a position such as a mayor or police and crime commissioner—a single individual speaking for a very large number of people—attracts less than half the support of those who voted, the legitimacy of the decisions they make will attract more criticism and challenge. That is not in the interests of good governance. It is a shame that that will happen, but it will.

I shall say just one thing about police and crime commissioners. When the first election for police and crime commissioners was not held on the same day as any other election, where I am in West Yorkshire a staggering 17% of the electorate decided to vote. Since then, the Government have always timetabled those elections to be on the same day, generally, as those for local authorities—to make sure that more people vote, I guess. But there was a by-election in North Yorkshire last November. About 20% of people voted in that by-election for a new police and crime commissioner, which should send everyone a message about how people view these positions. They see them as irrelevant to their lives; they have not made this huge difference in the accountability of policing for local people.

There is a challenge for the Government in considering good governance and accountability for both mayoral and police and crime commissioner decisions. We have had police and crime commissioners for a while now, and you would think that, if the public had warmed to them and could see that they made a difference, they would be more willing to cast their vote for them. The fact that they do not and that there is constant criticism of that position is something the Government need to think about again. They need to think about having one person in an area—although now they are combined, are they not? We have a West Yorkshire mayor who also deals with transport, the police and goodness knows what else, with just a little scrutiny situation underneath it all. This is no way to run a big organisation. No private company would organise in that way; it would have some independent people challenging and questioning. The fact that that is not happening with the mayor—except in London, of course, where there is a better set-up—is unacceptable in terms of democracy and accountability.

With those remarks, the Minister will be pleased to hear that I have concluded.

First, I refer noble Lords to my entry in the register, which states that I am still a local councillor in Burnley.

The regulations and orders under consideration today will bring forward first past the past for a range of elections. While I disagree that this policy should be the focus of the Government’s attention amid the cost of living crisis, these instruments would implement a decision already made as part of the Elections Act. For that reason, I shall not return to the same arguments made during the debates on that legislation, but I have a series of brief questions, which I hope the Minister can answer.

First, the Explanatory Memorandum and the debate in the other House seem to suggest that the only consultation was with the Electoral Commission. Can the Minister confirm this? Does that mean that no local authorities were engaged as part of this process? Did the Government speak to the Association of Electoral Administrators? Secondly, the memorandum says that this will save £7.3 million. Can the Minister explain this figure? Finally, when will the public awareness campaign begin so that voters in May know that they must change how they vote at the ballot box? I hope the Minister can provide assurances and, as always, I look forward to her response.

I thank noble Lords for their contributions to the debate. It is probably best if I go through the speakers in turn. First, I agree with my noble friend Lord Bourne that we have elections in a lot of different ways, across the United Kingdom. There are two points for me. First, the Elections Act 2022 started to make sure that many, at least in England, were more similar. There is nothing we can do about, for example, the Welsh Government and the way they have their elections; that responsibility is devolved to them, apart from for general elections. We can only talk to them, but that is what devolution is all about and we welcome those changes.

As for devolution in this country, the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement mentioned a number of authorities that were looking at different ways of combining so that they could have devolved responsibilities. I will get an updated briefing on that, let my noble friend have it and put a copy in the Library, because things in that area are moving quite fast and I should like him to have that up-to-date information.

I thank my noble friend Lord Hayward; I have noted the Gould principles. We just need to remember that returning officers need plenty of time and notice to make some of these changes to elections: they have to make different order forms and ballot papers, and train staff, if things change. The Gould principles can be flexible, as we have seen, but a certain amount of time is needed and we should be getting this through as soon as possible for May 2023.

Moving on to a number of questions from the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, the voting system used to elect our representatives sits at the heart of our democracy and is of fundamental importance to the Government. We were elected on a manifesto that included a commitment to continue to support the first past the post voting system. The Government believe that that system is a robust and secure way of electing representatives that is well understood by voters and provides for strong and clear local accountability. It also ensures a clear link between elected representatives and constituents in a manner that other voting systems may not.

The Government’s manifesto position in favour of first past the post also reflects that in the 2011 referendum there was a significant vote, as the noble Baroness will remember, in favour of retaining first past the post for parliamentary elections, when the proposal to introduce a transferable vote system—the alternative vote—was rejected by a majority of 67.9% of voters. Voters have had their say. It is simple and understood, and the Government have made it very clear in our manifesto that we support it and will move forward by changing any elections that we can to make those systems simpler.

The noble Baroness also brought up challenging spoiled ballots in other electoral methods. To give your Lordships an example, around 5% of votes cast in the May 2021 election for the Mayor of London, under the existing supplementary vote system, were rejected. The noble Baroness said that it is normally about 1%, but 5% is five times that. The Electoral Commission report of 2015 on the general election found that the percentage of votes rejected in the supplementary vote elections, held on the same day as the general election, was 12 times higher than for the first past the post vote.

Does the Minister have a breakdown of the spoiled ballot papers? As she will know, having been involved in elections for many years, rejected ballot papers are spoiled for a number of reasons. Sometimes voters do it deliberately, writing “None of the above” or words to that effect—sometimes quite strong words—or deliberately voting for every candidate. Those papers are spoiled not because the voter does not understand but because they reject all the candidates who are standing or for other reasons. Lumping it all together like that does not reflect validly what went on. I gave an example from Wakefield district where less than 1% were rejected for valid reasons of obviously not understanding the way the election system worked.

The noble Baroness is quite right: the issue of spoiled ballots is complex. Ballots can be spoiled for many reasons. This can also reflect how the electorate is feeling at the time. I think we have all seen that when we have been closely involved in elections.

The noble Baroness also brought up the issue of savings. The savings referred to in the Explanatory Notes are from the findings of the impact assessment. As a responsible Government, we always undertake impact assessments. The decision was taken to do that assessment on the principle of FPTP. There is a saving, and we have to communicate that.

The noble Baroness also raised PCC elections and turnout. I quite agree with her. However, I am not sure that it is up to the Government to ensure that our communities and the electorate understand the work of PCCs. I would challenge PCCs and suggest that they need to get out and tell their communities what they are doing on their behalf. They have been around a long time. The percentage turnout is increasing, but I agree with the noble Baroness that it is not increasing enough, given the important work that they do.

I move on to the questions from the noble Lord, Lord Khan. The Electoral Commission was the only consultee, because it was a technical consultation. We just wanted to make sure that all the wording and technicalities were correct. The Electoral Commission will issue guidance to explain the votes and exactly what has to be done, and it will do it as soon as secondary legislation is available. As part of the Bill itself, we made it clear that any differences to the way our electoral system works had to be communicated. This will be done in plenty of time for the elections in May next year.

I have mentioned the impact assessment and the £7.3 million. It is published—this is something that we do. I am very happy to share that impact assessment, if the noble Lord would like to see it. We will let him have it, so that he has all the detail.

These orders and regulations will mean that the decision which Parliament has taken, that mayoral and PCC elections should be on a first-past-the-post basis, can be implemented effectively. They are an essential element in the legal framework sustaining our local democracy. Therefore, I commend the instruments to the Committee.

Motion agreed.