HC Deb 22 July 1980 vol 989 cc275-81 3.47 pm
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- 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 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

Mr. Speaker

Has the hon. Member risen to oppose the Bill?

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.

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.