§ Mr. Archie Hamilton (Epsom and Ewell)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to confer a right on a specified proportion of a local government electorate to demand referenda on local government matters.
The purpose of the Bill is to allow district and regional local authority electors in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to put forward propositions that become subject to referenda held at the same time as local elections. I do not have to remind the House that referenda have already been held at national level on such subjects as devolution and our membership of the Common Market. In Northern Ireland a referendum was held about the future state of the Province. The subject of the polls has, quite rightly, been restricted to matters of constitutional importance, but, in addition, parish councils have the right to hold opinion polls on matters of local concern. That right was granted under the Local Government Act 1972.
Local government referenda would be a natural extension of existing provisions. They would give electors at all levels the opportunity to vote in referenda, and would considerably enhance the democratic process. Some people are worried about the cost of the referenda. It would be kept to a minimum by having propositions listed on ballot papers at election times. The referenda would not be held in isolation, but would limit the expense to extra stationery and the additional time spent by officials at the count.
I recognise that that would give an unfair advantage to electors who vote for a percentage of their councillors in each year. That is something with which we shall have to live. There is clearly a risk that the returning officer will be swamped with a large number of propositions, including many that may be thought frivolous. To control that, and to avoid great administrative problems, the Bill requires that propositions shall be petitioned by at least 10 per cent. of the electorate concerned. That means that petitions will have to be signed by between 2,000 and 20,000 electors in district councils, between 10,000 and 20,000 electors in Lon- 276 don boroughs, and 500,000 electors in the Greater London Council.
Another problem that has to be overcome is the wording of the proposition. Much in the same way as hon. Members need to seek advice from the Table Office on the suitability of questions to Ministers, or the wording of petitions, so we would have the same problem with propositions. It is important to ensure that the propositions are worded in such a way that they apply to local authorities and ask them to do things that they are capable of doing. The wording should be agreed with officers of the local councils, but, perish the thought, it might be that those local councils would fail to agree on the wording of the proposition simply to delay its passage. In these circumstances there would be a right of appeal to local ombudsmen, who would then decide.
I have also given great thought to the question whether the results of these referenda should be binding and compulsory, but I have been very much influenced by the fact that at national level referenda are not binding, and I feel that in practice it would be better if councils were not bound by the decisions of referenda, as they would feel compelled to meet the wishes of the electorate. The Bill, therefore, will not make the results of referenda binding. In the case of this privilege being abused, there is always the opportunity to legislate further at a later time.
Hon. Members may ask why it is necessary and why the existing local electorate system is not adequate. The reality is that in this country there is much more interest in Parliament than there is in local government. Such is the loyalty inspired by the political leadership in this place that people are liable to vote along party lines. Such is the interest held in what happens in this place that people who join in local elections use them to express their approval or disapproval of central Government. Indeed, the turnout in local elections has only once averaged more than 40 per cent. in the last 15 years.
This lack of interest in local government does not extend to other local things. Local newspapers and local radio stations have demonstrated their outstanding success, and the sense of community in this country is undoubtedly 277 growing. If people feel more involved in the process of making decisions on local issues that affect them they will take their democratic responsibilities more seriously. Referenda will improve communication between local councillors and their electors. If the decision, for instance, to spend millions of pounds on a new town hall in Southwark, one of London's poorest boroughs, had been put to a referendum, it would have provided a great opportunity to debate the subject with the people who would have to foot the bill.
One wonders what the electors of Lambeth feel about Mr. Ted Knight spending their money like one of Queen Victoria's maharajas. They might not like the fact that Lambeth has a similar population to Wandsworth but spends £ 83 million to Wandsworth's £ 51 million, and that Lambeth employs 10,200 people—500 more than a year ago—while Wandsworth employs 7,200, which is 1,000 down over the last two years. On the other hand, Lambeth electors may enjoy paying rates that are 50 per cent. higher than the rates of their neighbours in Wandsworth. They may like to see their town hall well staffed. I do not know, and nobody knows, but
|Division No. 420]||AYES||[3.53 pm|
|Adley, Robert||Freud, Clement||Penhaligon, David|
|Alexander, Richard||Fry, Peter||Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)|
|Alton, David||Gardiner, George (Reigate)||Rhodes James, Robert|
|Ancram, Michael||Greenway, Harry||Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon|
|Arnold, Tom||Grimond, Rt Hon J.||Robinson, Peter (Belfast East)|
|Banks, Robert||Grylls, Michael||Rost, Peter|
|Beaumont-Dark, Anthony||Hamilton, Hon Archie (Eps'm&Ew'll)||Shelton, William (Streatham)|
|Beith, A. J.||Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury)||Skeet, T.H. H.|
|Benyon, Thomas (Abingdon)||Hastings, Stephen||Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)|
|Biggs-Davison, John||Haynes, Frank||Smith, Dudley (War. and Leam'ton)|
|Bottomley, Peter (Woolwich West)||Heddle, John||Speller, Tony|
|Bowden, Andrew||Howell, Ralph (North Norfolk)||Stainton, Keith|
|Bright, Graham||Hunt, David (Wirral)||Steel, Rt Hon David|
|Brotherton, Michael||Kilfedder, James A.||Taylor, Teddy (Southend East)|
|Bruce-Gardyne, John||Knight, Mrs Jill||Temple-Morris, Peter|
|Butcher, John||Lawrence, Ivan||Thomas, Dr Roger (Carmarthen)|
|Campbell-Savours, Dale||Lee, John||Thornton, Malcolm|
|Canavan, Dennis||Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark||Townend, John (Bridlington)|
|Clark, Hon Alan (Plymouth, Sutton)||Lloyd, Ian (Havant & Waterloo)||Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexleyheath)|
|Cockeram, Eric||Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)||Wainwright, Richard (Colne Valley)|
|Colvin, Michael||Loveridge, John||Wall, Patrick|
|Costain, Sir Albert||MacKay, John (Argyll)||Ward, John|
|Dickens, Geoffrey||McQuade, John||Whitney, Raymond|
|Eden, Rt Hon Sir John||Mills, lain (Meriden)||Winterton, Nicholas|
|English, Michael||Montgomery, Fergus|
|Fell, Anthony||Morris, Michael (Northampton, Sth)||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:|
|Fenner, Mrs Peggy||Mudd, David||Mr. Bob Dunn and|
|Fisher, Sir Nigel||Page, Richard (SW Hertfordshire)||Mr. Viscount Cranborne.|
|Fraser, Peter (South Angus)||Pawsey, James|
|Archer, Rt Hon Peter||Bagier, Gordon A. T.||Booth, Rt Hon Albert|
|Ashton, Joe||Benn, Rt Hon Anthony Wedgwood||Brinton, Tim|
|Atkinson, Norman (H'gey, Tott'ham)||Bennett. Andrew (Stockport N)||Brown, Robert C (Newcastle W)|
§ nobody ever will know until local government referenda give people the opportunity to make their wishes clear.
§ Mr. Stan Thorne (Preston, South) rose—3.53 pm
§ Mr. Thorne
Yes, Mr. Speaker. It is not my intention to make a lengthy speech. It seems to me that we either accept that we ought to be governed by a Government—local or national—who are elected through the ballot box on a democratic basis, or that there is some way, from time to time, through some sort of political contrivance, by which we can resort to referenda. I happen to believe that the latter method is not desirable and that the former must be upheld. On that basis, I suggest that the House ought to reject the Bill.
§ Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business):—
§ The House divided: Ayes 82, Noes 124.279
|Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P)||Goodlad, Alastair||Newens, Stanley|
|Campbell, Ian||Graham, Ted||O'Halloran, Michael|
|Cartwright, John||Grant, George (Morpeth)||O'Neill, Martin|
|Clark, Dr David (South Shields)||Hamilton, James (Bothwell)||Orme, Rt Hon Stanley|
|Cocks.Rt Hon Michael (Bristol S)||Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)||Palmer, Arthur|
|Concannon, Rt Hon J. D.||Hardy, Peter||Parry, Robert|
|Corrle, John||Harrison, Rt Hon Walter||Powell, Rt Hon J. Enoch (S Down)|
|Cox, Tom (Wandsworth, Tooting)||Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy||Price, Christopher (Lewisham West)|
|Craigen, J. M. (Glasgow, Maryhill)||Heffer, Eric S.||Radice, Giles|
|Oyer, Bob||Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.||Rees-Davies, W. R.|
|Cunliffe, Lawrence||Holland, Stuart (L'beth, Vauxhall)||Richardson, Jo|
|Dalyell, Tam||Hooley, Frank||Roberts, Gwllym (Cannock)|
|Davidson, Arthur||Hudson Davies, Gwllym Ednyfed||Robinson, Geoffrey (Coventry NW)|
|Davis, Terry (B'rm'ham, Stechford)||Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen North)||Ross, Ernest (Dundee West)|
|Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)||Hughes, Roy (Newport)||Shearman, Barry|
|Dempsey, James||Janner, Hon Greville||Short, Mrs Reneé|
|Dewar, Donald||Johnson, James (Hull West)||Skinner, Dennis|
|Dixon, Donald||Johnson Smith, Geoffrey||Smith, Rt Hon J. (North Lanarkshire)|
|Dobson, Frank||Jones, Dan (Burnley)||Speed, Keith|
|Dormand, Jack||Kinnock, Neil||Stevens, Martin|
|Dubs, Alfred||Litherland, Robert||Stoddart, David|
|Dunn, James A. (Liverpool, Kirkdale)||McCartney, Hugh||Straw, Jack|
|Eadie, Alex||McElhone, Frank||Summerskill, Hon Dr Shirley|
|Eastham, Ken||McKay, Allen (Penistone)||Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton West)|
|Edwards, Robert (Wolv SE)||McKelvey, William||Trippier, David|
|Eggar, Timothy||McNamara, Kevin||Varley, Rt Hon Eric Q.|
|Ellis, Raymond (NE Derbyshire)||McWilliam, John||Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne Valley)|
|Emery, Peter||Marshall, David (Gl'sgow, Shettles'n)||Watkins, David|
|Evans, loan (Aberdare)||Marshall, Jim (Leicester South)||Watson, John|
|Evans, John (Newton)||Mason, Rt Hon Roy||Weetch, Kan|
|Ewing, Harry||Mawhinney, Dr Brian||Welsh, Michael|
|Farr, John||Maxton, John||Wigley, Dafydd|
|Flannery, Martin||Mikardo, Ian||Woodall, Alec|
|Fletcher, Ted (Darlington)||Miltan, Rt Hon Bruce||Woolmer, Kenneth|
|Forrester, John||Miller, Dr M. S. (East Kilbride)||Wright, Sheila|
|Foster, Derek||Mitchell, R. C. (Soton, lichen)|
|Garrett, John (Norwich S)||Molyneaux, James||TELLERS FOR THE NOES:|
|Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend)||Morris, Rt Hon Alfred (Wythenshawe)||Mr. Russell Kerr and|
|George, Bruce||Morris, Rt Hon Charles (Openshaw)||Mr. Stan Thorne.|
|Golding, John||Morton, George|
§ Question accordingly negatived.