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Combined Authorities (Mayors) Filling of Vacancies Order 2017 (Amendment) Regulations 2024

Volume 835: debated on Tuesday 30 January 2024

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Combined Authorities (Mayors) Filling of Vacancies Order 2017 (Amendment) Regulations 2024.

My Lords, in moving this Motion, I will also speak to the Combined Authorities (Mayoral Elections) Order 2017 (Amendment) Regulations 2024.

These draft regulations were laid before the House on 11 December 2023. If approved and made, they will amend the existing legislation to provide the rules for the conduct of elections for directly elected mayors of combined county authorities and the rules by which mayoral vacancies in such authorities are to be declared, as well as the procedure for filling them through by- elections. The mayoral elections regulations are essential to enable the first election of a combined county authority mayor—in the east Midlands—to take place as planned in May 2024. It is highly desirable that the filling of vacancies regulations are made before the possibility of a vacancy in the post of combined county authority mayor arises.

The two sets of regulations that we are considering, if approved and made, will mark a milestone in implementing the east Midlands devolution deal and pave the way for further mayoral combined county authorities. As noble Lords will be aware, the Government agreed an historic devolution deal with Derbyshire County Council, Derby City Council, Nottinghamshire County Council and Nottingham City Council in August 2022. This deal, if the necessary secondary legislation is approved by Parliament, will see significant powers and budgets conferred on the East Midlands Combined County Authority.

This authority, if approved by Parliament, will be the first of its kind to be established under the new powers in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023. Its directly elected mayor, agreed and consented to by the four councils concerned, will provide an essential single point of accountability for such major powers. The draft mayoral elections regulations are necessary to conduct an election of the east Midlands mayor and, indeed, to conduct elections for any future combined county authority mayors. The draft filling of vacancies regulations provide the rules for filling any mid-term vacancies in the office of mayor for a combined county authority.

Turning to the specifics, the draft mayoral elections regulations make detailed provision about the conduct of the elections for mayors of combined county authorities. They do this by extending the application of the Combined Authorities (Mayoral Elections) Order 2017 to elections for combined county authority mayors. They also apply the Voter Identification Regulations 2022 to combined county authority mayoral elections in order to maintain consistency with other local government elections, and ensure that transitional provisions for EU citizens standing as candidates in other local elections in May 2024 apply to combined county authority mayoral elections.

The Combined Authorities (Mayoral Elections) Order 2017 largely replicated the rules for elections for local authority mayors and police and crime commissioners. This procedural consistency is the hallmark of local government electoral law and ensures the smooth running of polls, particularly where they are held in combination. However, I will mention certain specific provisions that we are making for combined county authority mayors, reflecting the constitutional arrangements for these authorities.

We are creating a new role—the combined county authority returning officer—to oversee the whole of the election of a combined county authority mayor. This important role mirrors the role of the combined authority returning officer. The combined county authority returning officer, like the combined authority returning officer, will be personally responsible for publishing the notice of elections, administering the nomination process, ensuring that candidates comply with the requirements regarding the content of their election addresses, collating and calculating the number of votes given for each candidate, and calculating and declaring the result.

The draft regulations also clarify that the returning officer for the district council in a two-tier area of a combined county authority is to be responsible for running the mayoral election within that council’s area. This is because the procedural expertise and experience, as well as the responsibility for the electoral register, sits with these councils. This is the approach generally taken in polls run on different geographies to that of the district council including, for example, county council and police and crime commissioner elections.

In addition, the regulations also contain two provisions that apply to both combined authority and combined county authority mayoral elections. First, we have included provision enabling the appointment of a combined authority returning officer, or a combined county authority returning officer, before the respective authority is established. This will help ensure the smooth running of the first mayoral election where the statutory instrument establishing the new authority is made only relatively shortly before the date of the mayoral election provided for in that secondary legislation.

For combined authorities, commencement of this provision is delayed until 1 July 2024. This is because the order to establish the new north-east mayoral combined authority, which we expect to lay before Parliament shortly, includes an area-specific provision for the first mayoral election in May 2024, reflecting the unique circumstances of that authority. This delay in the commencement provision avoids the risk of two alternative sets of provision being in play at the election on 2 May 2024.

Secondly, we have set the figures in the formula for the calculation of candidate spending limits at combined county authority mayoral elections at £3,040 per constituent council and 8p per elector. We have consulted the Electoral Commission on this as statute requires and, on the basis that these figures align with the candidate spending limits for combined authority mayors, the commission recommended this approach. These regulations also establish new spending limits for combined authority mayors by uprating in line with inflation the limits that were set in 2017. To do this, we have used the powers given by Parliament to the Secretary of State to make such upratings in line with inflation, for which no further recommendation is required from the Electoral Commission. Parity is therefore maintained between combined county authority elections and combined authority elections.

Turning to the filling of vacancies regulations, these smaller regulations also extend the scope of existing provision for combined authorities to include combined county authorities. They are necessary to establish the rules by which vacancies are to be declared in the office of a combined county authority mayor and the procedures for filling these vacancies through by-elections. These provisions need to be in place in advance of any combined county authority mayor being elected to ensure that any subsequent vacancy can be appropriately and consistently dealt with.

On consultation, the Government undertook extensive consultation ahead of the 2017 electoral provisions for combined authorities. The regulations before us today replicate the 2017 provisions and apply them to combined county authorities, reflecting the parity between the two types of authority. We have undertaken statutory consultation with the Electoral Commission on the provision in the draft mayoral elections regulations about expense limits for candidates for combined county authority mayoral elections and combined authority elections. The regulations reflect the commission’s recommendation with regard to the setting of the new combined county authority mayoral spending limit.

In addition, we shared informally with the commission a draft of the filling of vacancies regulations. We also engaged with officers of the constituent councils of the East Midlands; I want to say at this time that we are grateful for their input as we have developed the drafts of this legislation.

In conclusion, these draft regulations set out a robust legal framework for the election of combined county authority mayors. They provide the necessary clarity to those tasked with running these elections and ensure that local electors can have confidence in the fair conduct of these elections. I commend both sets of draft regulations to the Committee.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her introduction to these two SIs. I understand entirely the need for speed on them both. I should declare an interest as an elector in the North East Combined Authority. I listened carefully to what the Minister said about the arrangements for the next few months regarding the processes being put in place. It is appropriate that combined county authorities and mayoral combined authorities have the same regulations as each other; that is the right thing to do. It is also right and appropriate to uprate expenditure limits in line with inflation.

The Minister mentioned voter ID. I suggest to her that more attention be paid to the concerns around that. There has been a consultation with the Electoral Commission, which made clear its concerns about some of the requirements on voter ID that certainly seem to make it more difficult for younger people to vote. More generally, it is our view that the voter ID requirements need urgent reform. The Minister mentioned that voter ID regulations are to be the same for both kinds of authorities. Perhaps the Government should be more proactive about addressing the need for change.

There are some issues behind both these statutory instruments, which result, in part, from the passing of the levelling-up Act. I have grave concerns about the electoral system being used in these elections, first past the post, because the mayoral combined authority model is highly centralist. It does not engage fully with the general public or, indeed, most elected councillors; only council leaders will be engaged. There is an issue of legitimacy for those elected on very low turnouts with a very low share of the poll. It is entirely possible that, in a first past the post system, the person being elected on a 30% to 35% turnout may have only 30% support on first preferences. That is not adequate when the powers of a mayor are so great. I repeat my concern about the legitimacy of the electoral system, given that difficult, complex and challenging decisions will have to be made by the mayoral combined authorities of whatever kind.

The second issue is the role of district councils, which the Minister mentioned when she talked about managing the electoral process. During the passage of the levelling-up Act, we raised the issue of their rights to full membership of combined county authorities. They are the planning authority, not just the manager of the electoral processes. Can the Minister give us any update about whether district councils are now satisfied with the roles the Government are planning? I should say, in passing, that I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

I also have a concern, which I raised during the passing of the levelling-up Act, about scrutiny, audit and risk. I take these issues extremely seriously, and I just hope that the Government have ensured that every mayoral combined authority and every combined county authority has adequate risk, audit and scrutiny systems in place, given the huge sums of public money that they will be spending through that very centralised, top-down system.

Finally, I remind the Minister—this may be a matter for after the general election—that we now have a patchwork of devolved structures, which in most cases are not devolved because the finances are in the control of the Treasury. There are so many differences, and I hope that the Government are planning to review all of them, so that it is not just a question of a local area getting together to establish a combined authority that will have a certain number of powers that the area asks to be devolved, but, rather, that we look at the overall structure across England and try to build on best practice —what we have learned that works well—so that we get a more certain system of devolved powers.

Having said all that, I understand the need for speed on these SIs. We shall not stand in their way.

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for introducing these statutory instruments. I concur with many of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, in relation to district councils and their role in administrating elections, which I will come to shortly.

These regulations provide the rules for declaring a combined county mayoral vacancy, the procedure for by-elections and the rules governing a mayoral election. They do this simply by extending the existing rules for combined authority mayoral elections or by-elections to cover the new combined county authority mayors. We on these Benches supported the passage of the original orders in 2017, and we support these instruments today.

These regulations are required in advance of the first planned combined county authority mayoral election in May 2024 in the East Midlands, as the Minister mentioned, and we on these Benches want to focus on a particular point. While we are discussing the combined county authorities, I will take this opportunity to raise the importance of ensuring that all constituent councils get the opportunity to have their say. We hope that the mayors duly elected under the regulations we are discussing will take heed of the importance of that very local representation and expertise in parish, district and town councils.

As the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, mentioned, the Minister talked about a two-tier system where there is a county and a district council. She referred to how the district council presiding officers will have the responsibility to administer the election process. My concern is that, as the noble Lord mentioned, there is a lot of confusion about the financial resources to support the administration of these elections. We all know that local councils are already so stretched, and there is a lot of discussion about certain councils not having enough funds to deliver statutory services. What extra financial support or resources are the Government giving to district councils in light of the new responsibilities created by these statutory instruments?

Can I press the Minister further in relation to consultation? She mentioned a number of organisations. I have seen this repeatedly in numerous statutory instruments. What is the consultation in relation to working with the Local Government Association, and what is the overall focus with regard to the district, parish and town councils? What discussions and deliberations are there with these councils in the light of these statutory instruments being introduced? I look forward to the Minister’s response.

I thank both noble Lords for taking an interest in this debate and for their contributions. Once again, these regulations are essential in providing the rules by which all county combined authority mayors will be elected, including in May, as well as the mayor of the East Midlands if Parliament approves this new authority.

The noble Lord, Lord Shipley, asked about voter ID. Yes, that is understood. We have heard him loud and clear throughout many debates on voter ID. Obviously, we went through reviews on that, as did the Electoral Commission. I have been away, and have not been so close to it, but I will write to the noble Lord to say what the next moves are. I think we all have to agree that the first use of voter ID—I know it was in a smaller area—was successful, but we should never be complacent. We need to keep listening and learning from it.

On first past the post, which is another thing that the noble Lord often brings up, there is not going to be a change. The Government are very clear that the first past the post system is the most straightforward way of electing representatives. It is well understood by the electorate of this country. It makes it so much easier for the public to express a clear preference and reduces a lot of the complexity that we have seen recently in police and crime commissioner elections. There is no plan to change or relook at that; we had that discussion again on the recent Bill on elections, and we will not be looking back at it.

The patchwork of differences across the country is an interesting issue. The problem is that the whole of local government in this country is complex anyway, and reflects the different areas: cities, rural areas, and towns with rural areas around them. Government is trying to reflect that and give local people some choices about how they look in a bigger and more overall way at their area, rather than at small—down even to county —areas. As things change in this country, we are seeing bigger areas of economic development. We need to look at where the work patterns and travel-to-work patterns are. We need to look at all those things as well as at the traditional districts and counties that we have seen in the past.

I think it is up to local people. They have choice through the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act—they now have choices on how to plan for the future—but we in government have no further plan to look at the overall structure across the whole country.

On district councils, I will come back to the noble Lord. As far as I know, there has been nothing further since the Act came into force, but I will go back and see what discussions have been had with the district councils. That links to something brought up by the noble Lord, Lord Khan: do we talk to the district councils? Yes, we do. We talk to the LGA, the District Councils’ Network and the County Councils Network. They are part of the team that looks at these things, and part of our top stakeholder group, but I do not know what the latest conversations with particularly the district councils are.

As far as audit, risk and scrutiny are concerned—all important parts of local government—as we get bigger and there is more money to spend, people expect that money to be accounted for and to be accounted for quite publicly. In the new combined county authorities, while it is the upper tier that is doing it, the same audit requirements will be there as for other councils as they exist now. There must be scrutiny committees and audit committees, and they must have a risk register. I do not think it is any different but, in my opinion, we need to continue to challenge local authorities and to make sure that they are accessible to local people to know what their money is being spent on.

Quite rightly, the noble Lord, Lord Khan, talked about consulting with local people about any changes. I have been through that consultation; it is tough at times, but it is important. It will always be part of our process that local people are consulted in those early stages of changing their council structures, if that is what local people want. It is up to local elected representatives, whether district, county, borough or wherever they come from, to listen to local people before any changes are made. We expect that to happen.

In conclusion, these regulations are essential— as I said—to progress the devolution powers and to enable the election of combined county authority mayors. I commend both sets of draft regulations to the Committee.

Motion agreed.