HC Deb 18 June 1973 vol 858 cc289-95

Amendments made: No. 48, in page 151, line 40, leave out paragraph 1.

No. 49, in page 152, line 12, leave out 'elections mentioned in paragraph 1 above' and insert 'the first elections of councillors for the new local authorities'.—[Mr. Buchanan-Smith.]

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I beg to move Amendment No. 50, in line 14, leave out 'by order designate' and insert 'direct'

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this amendment, it will be convenient to discuss Government Amendments No. 183 and 184.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

These are drafting amendments.

The effect of Amendment No. 50 is to provide that instruments issued by the Secretary of State under paragraph 3(1) of Schedule 2 nominating the existing county and town councils which are to appoint the returning officers for the first elections are to take the form of directions and not orders. In the case of these instruments and of the instruments which are to be made under paragraph 2(1) of Schedule 2 prescribing the electoral areas for the first elections, it is desirable that the Secretary of State should be relieved of as much formality as possible since these are instruments which will have to be issued quickly after the Bill receives the Royal Assent in order that there may be no delay in commencing the preparations for the first elections in 1974.

It was intended, therefore, that the instruments under both of these paragraphs should not be subject to the provisions of Clause 227 which provides that orders, rules and regulations under the Bill are to take the form of statutory instruments. In the Bill as introduced, an exception for orders under paragraph 3(1) was made in Clause 227 but to achieve this for paragraph 2 it was provided that the instruments were to be directions and not orders. A reference to paragraph 2 of Schedule 2, however, was inadvertently left in Clause 227. The amendment, therefore, puts the instruments to be issued under paragraph 2(1) and 3(1) on the same footing; they are to be directions and not orders and are not, therefore, to attract the provisions of Clause 227.

4.0 a.m.

Amendment No. 183 corrects an error in Clause 227 which, as it stands, provides that orders made under Clause 10 are to be excepted from the requirement of the clause that orders are to take the form of statutory instruments.

Amendment No. 184 deletes references to instruments to be made by the Secretary of State under the provisions of paragraphs 1, 2 and 3(1) of Schedule 2 as being exceptions to the provisions of Clause 227 which requires orders, rules and regulations under the Bill to take the form of statutory instruments.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I beg to move Amendment No. 51, in page 152, line 14, at end insert: '(2) In relation to any such election, if in any electoral division of a region there is a contested election of a regional councillor, any contested election of a district councillor for a ward within that division shall take place in the polling stations and with the presiding officers and clerks appointed for the election of the regional councillor'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Robert Grant-Ferris)

With this amendment it will be convenient to discuss Government Amendment No. 52.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

Amendment No. 51 provides that at the first ordinary elections of regional and district councillors in 1974 the elections are to be held in the same polling stations and with the same presiding officers and clerks.

The Government's amendments involving the alteration of Clause 8 and the deletion of paragraph 1 of Schedule 2 will have the effect that the ordinary elections to all the new authorities in 1974 will take place on the first Tuesday in May. It will be practicable to hold the regional and district elections simultaneously only if the poll is held in the same polling stations and with the same presiding officers and clerks. Although in practice there would be no other way of proceeding, it is considered desirable that the Bill should direct the elections to be carried cut in this way in case objection is made to the procedure involved. In relation to the ordinary elections of existing county and district councillors, which are always held simultaneously, there is an existing similar provision in rule 52 of the Scottish Local Elections Rules in Schedule 2 to the Representation of the People Act 1949.

Amendment No. 52 provides that in relation to the first ordinary elections of regional and district councillors in 1974 the power to constitute polling districts, which, in relation to subsequent elections, will be exercised by the new councils, is to be exercised by the returning officer for the district council. Paragraph 3(3) of Schedule 2 to the Bill as reported provides for this power to be exercised separately by the regional and the district returning officer. This is a logical extension of the Government's Amendment No. 51 providing that the first ordinary elections of regional and district councillors in 1974 are to be held in the same polling stations and with the same presiding officers and clerks. Polling stations are situated in the polling place for the polling district and if the same polling stations are to be used for the first ordinary regional and district elections it is essential that the elections should be organised on the basis of the same polling districts. In practice it is expected that existing parliamentary polling districts will be used, but there may be a few cases where new polling districts have to be devised.

Mr. David Steel

At four o'clock in the morning I may be a little slow on the uptake. Is it the Government's intention that the regional and district elections should invariably take place on the same day?

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

That will happen only in 1974. Afterwards they will be at two-yearly intervals.

Mr. Steel

I should have thought that was the one time when it was important to distinguish them. After all, experience south of the border this year tends to support that view. With new authorities surely it is wiser to have the elections separated by one or two weeks so that candidates offering themselves for the regions could do so for the districts later.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

This point was discussed in Committee. No particular exception was taken to the view that the elections should be held on the same day. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) wanted the situation clarified and it was the subject of an earlier amendment.

I hope that it will not give rise to confusion. In all landward districts in Scotland electors have been accustomed to county and district council elections taking place on the same day. Therefore, the people in that great area, although they may not be the majority, are not unaccustomed to this practice.

There is, of course, a balance of argument. We take the view, and it is supported by consultations with the local authority associations and others, that in the first instance these elections should take place on the same day.

Mr. Ross

This may prove to be rather important. Most local authority associations consulted by the hon. Gentleman would have no experience of this practice, because in the greater part of Scotland these elections are not held on the same day. That rules out all the cities, and in many of the rural areas there are a number of non-contested elections—if not for county councils, then for district councils.

I want to ask the hon. Gentleman a question to which he may not have the answer. This matter has been put to me by people with experience of this practice. I have been told that if dual elections are held in areas which have had no previous experience of them there is a considerable jump in the number of spoiled papers because people have not been accustomed to the practice and do not readily and quickly understand it.

Bearing in mind the importance of this, I think we must ensure that people clearly understand the procedure. I should like the Government to keep their mind fairly free about this and get a little more information from people who have experience of this practice. Next year we have to introduce people to completely new concepts of local government and duplicate counties, and it may be that quite a string of names will go forward for election if we get the heightened interest in local government that we want to see.

Dealing with the problem may prove to be more difficult and more complex than we expect. The Government should be able to find out from those who have had experience of this whether there is a rise in the number of spoiled papers when district and county council elections are held on the same day. This will be a new feature for the burghs and cities, and I hope that the Government will not close their minds to the fact that there may be some difficulties. I have discussed this matter with county councillors since the Committee stage, because it is only after discussions there that people come forward with their own experiences and ideas.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising the matter because it has been put to us in the Scottish Office that there is an increase in the number of spoiled papers in these circumstances. I have not been able to confirm that as a fact, but the right hon. Gentleman is right in saying there is a feeling that that is the case. I shall try to keep an open mind. We believe that we have struck the right balance.

For the benefit for hon. Members who were not on the Committee, perhaps I may tell the House that we had a conference on all these electoral matters with representatives of all the political parties in Scotland. I referred in detail in Committee to the things that we had discussed. One thing that emerged was that it was the general wish that these elections should be held on the same day. That was the wish of the political parties, which, after all, will be most directly involved.

Therefore, although I will keep an open mind on this—we may have to be careful about the instructions on completion of ballot papers that are issued in polling stations—and despite the view expressed by the political parties, I do not think that we are necessarily wrong in having these elections on the same day in the first instance.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 52, in page 15, line 24, leave out from 'exercisable' to end of line 25, and insert:

  1. (a) in the case of an islands area, by the returning officer for that area appointed under this paragraph;
  2. (b) in the case of a district and of that part of a region which constitutes that district, by the returning officer for the district appointed under this paragraph; and the same polling districts, so constituted, shall be used for the first elections of councillors for the council of the district and of the region which includes the district.'.—[Mr. Buchanan-Smith.]

Mr. Robert Hughes

I beg to move Amendment No. 53, in page 153, line 19, leave out from 'authority' to 'shall' in line 20 and insert: 'designated by the person designated as mentioned in paragraph 5(2) above'. It seemed in Standing Committee that there was some confusion in the Bill as drafted as to precisely what standing orders would be used at the first meeting of a new council, which might include a number of former councils with different standing orders. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) suggested that the officer who called the first meeting of the new council should designate which standing orders should be used. This would avoid any argument.

The Under-Secretary undertook to look at this matter. I do not see any Government amendment on the subject, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman will be prepared to accept our amendment.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that the person designated to convene the first meeting will be responsible for choosing what standing orders should apply. The proposal has the merit, therefore, of being entirely specific.

This is not a point of major importance. In Committee we thought it preferable that the joint committee, or, where there was no joint committee, the Secretary of State, should be responsible for this decision, rather than one person. It seems to us preferable that this should be the decision of the elected representatives. In practice, there will not be a great deal of difference in the final effect, since the standing orders, so far as they affect the initial meetings, are unlikely to vary much from one authority to another.

In Committee, on behalf of the Opposition, the hon. Member for Greenock (Dr. Dickson Mabon) objected that he could not see the logic of leaving the choice of standing orders to the joint committee concerned when it had already chosen the designated officer. What we have had to bear in mind is that it is not beyond the bounds of possibility, although it is not all that likely, that the designated officer could come from one authority, while the standing orders of another might for some technical reason be preferable. Therefore, the logic is that the joint committee should do both things, and not leave this matter to the designated officer.

Therefore, after reflection, I do not think we would gain a great deal by accepting the amendment, and I prefer to leave the Bill as we had it in Standing Committee.

Mr. Robert Hughes

It certainly seems that the Under-Secretary is right, but I wonder why it was necessary to put the point in such an obtuse manner in the Bill, with all these references back. It might have been easier to say that the first meeting shall be convened by a certain date on the standing orders then decided. It is not a matter of great importance, and at the end of the day it will come out the same whatever we put in the Bill.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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