HC Deb 24 October 1972 vol 843 cc993-6

Lords Amendment: No. 40, in page 8, line 8, after "of" insert "metropolitan".

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Mark Carlisle)

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment.

This is substantially a drafting point, although I know that the right hon. Member for Deptford (Mr. John Silkin) feels that a point of substance is involved. Its purpose is to make clear that there is power to make an order providing for elections to London borough councils to be held in any or each of the years between county council elections.

The effect will be that it will be possible for London boroughs as a whole to have either whole council elections or, like metropolitan districts, elections of thirds. The effect of the Amendment, by inserting the word "metropolitan", is to make it clear that it allows for elections of London borough councils to be held in any or each of the years in which metropolitan district council elections are now held, namely between county council elections.

Clause 8 as a whole is merely an enabling power. Any change in the existing timing of arrangements will require an order by the Secretary of State and such order will be subject to affirmative Resolution of the House.

The position of the Greater London Council will be that, if no order is made, then there would be whole council elections every three years; but the Secretary of State can make an order under Clause 8(2)(a) allowing the holding of council elections every four years; whereas for London boroughs, which at the moment have whole council elections every three years, the Secretary of State will in future be able to make an order, either for whole council elections every four years, or for elections by thirds on the exact analogy of metropolitan districts. At an earlier stage we undertook to consult with the boroughs before coming to a decision, but any decision will have to apply to all the boroughs since we should not like there to be a different decision on each borough.

3.45 p.m.

Mr. John Silken

I am grateful to the Minister of State for clarifying this issue, although his words will require some study by the various members of the London Boroughs Association before they can understand what is involved.

This is a complicated matter and, to some extent, I am the villain of the piece since it was I who on Report asked what was meant by "district council"—it could mean metropolitan; it could mean non-metropolitan. I am beginning to wish that I had not asked.

Certain of my noble Friends in another place felt that if the word "district" were qualified by the word "metropolitan" it might have a very restrictive effect on the Home Secretary and might force him, were he to make an order, to equate the GLC with other metropolitan districts. However, it now appears that there will be alternatives. One of my noble Friends in the other place thought that the better way to deal with the matter would be by using the word "non-metropolitan" instead of "metropolitan" to qualify "district". I considered this matter in the late hours of last night and early this morning and I believe that that suggestion would have an even worse effect because, by the time the Bill has been operating for some time, there will be non-metropolitan district elections every single year. The lesson to he drawn is that the whole Clause should have been redrafted in another place. But, as it is, we are stuck with this provision and the Minister has decided on this method of achieving what he wants.

The Minister has given again the undertaking which his right hon. Friend gave to the hon. Member for Kensington, South (Sir B. Rhys Williams), namely that there is no question of the Secretary of State ordering something which was not wanted by local authorities. I should like the hon. and learned Gentleman to reconsider one point. A moment ago he used the phrase "all the London boroughs". I do not want to anticipate what may or may not take place, but there might conceivably be a difference of opinion between those outer London boroughs which are used to one method of election and the inner London boroughs which are used to another.

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman simply say that his right hon. Friend will not totally close his mind to the possibility that there might be differences? The Bill itself makes differences between non-metropolitan districts. There might be a non-metropolitan district opting for an all-council election side by side with another district council which might opt for an annual election. There seems to be no logical reason why this situation should not also obtain in London as well. Will the Government be prepared to look at the situation if the right hon. Gentleman decides to bring in an order to alter the present situation in London?

We all know that courts regrettably, never take any notice of what is said in this House; they take notice only of the law as it comes to them. I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman has the situation aright, but it is arrived at by a circumlocutory method. If the courts were to decide that his interpretation was wrong, I take it that there would be amending legislation to achieve what we both want to see.

Mr. Carlisle

With the leave of the House, may I say that I hope that the situation which the right hon. Gentleman outlined will not arise. I think it is clear that wording the provision in the way we have leaves the widest flexibility in the hands of the Home Secretary. I wish to reiterate that we are committed to consult both the GLC and the London Boroughs Association on this matter. The final decision must be with the Home Secretary, who will obviously take into account the views expressed. My right hon. Friend cannot commit himself in advance to say that this will in any way bind him.

I think I am right in saying that since the wording deals with each or any of the years in which a metropolitan district election is held, this would allow for what the right hon. Gentleman asks. However, I must make it clear that in the rest of the Bill we have distinguished between non-metropolitan and metropolitan. We have made it clear that we are not giving metropolitan districts an option. The analogy for the London boroughs is the metropolitan district rather than the non- metropolitan district. Therefore, it will be appropriate to have a similar system of elections throughout London.

Mr. John Silkin

With great respect to the hon. and learned Gentleman, I feel that already a distinction is being made in London because, subject to the Secretary of State's overriding authority, there will be three, possibly four, choices open to the London boroughs. To that extent he is not dealing with them exactly in the way in which metropolitan districts are being dealt with in other parts of the country. He is treating them almost as rather privileged non-metropolitan districts.

Mr. Carlisle

Perhaps I may limit it to saying that my prima facie reaction is that to have a different type of election in the different boroughs in London would add confusion to the situation, but so far as I can see there is nothing in the wording which would shut out a solution of the sort which the right hon. Gentleman has asked us to consider if it was felt to be appropriate.

I was saying that there are arguments for dealing with all the London boroughs in an identical way. I believe that some order will have to be made, otherwise we shall have a three-year cycle of elections in London and a four-year cycle in the rest of the country. It is desirable to have the same sort of timetable in London as is pursued outside London. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the final decision is left completely open by the Amendment. We shall consider carefully what the London boroughs say and indeed what the right hon. Gentleman has said.

Question put and agreed to.

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