HC Deb 24 July 1990 vol 177 cc307-9 3.56 pm
Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for annual elections to all local authorities; for one third of the members of each local authority to stand down each year, by rotation; and for connected purposes. The electoral pattern of local authorities in England and Wales is, to put it bluntly, a mess. It is not governed by logic or reason, and it is overdue for reform. That fact was recognised by the Widdicombe inquiry into the conduct of local authority business, the report of which was published in 1986. It pointed out that, for county councils, elections take place every four years, with all members retiring simultaneously. Of the shire districts, about 60 per cent. have whole council district elections, while the remainder have elections by thirds. Whether district councils fall into one category or the other essentially seems to depend on whether or not they were boroughs before the 1974 reorganisation.

The metropolitan districts already have elections by thirds, but since the abolition of the metropolitan county councils, there is curiously now an off year, every fourth year, when no elections take place. Finally, in the London boroughs, all members retire simultaneously every fourth year, although, as in other councils, there is considerable variation in the number of members per ward.

This lack of uniformity owes nothing to recent ideas, being attributable to provisions laid down in the Municipal Corporations Act 1835 and the Local Government Acts 1888 and 1894 and being dependent on the changing fashions of the time. It has been criticised by successive committees of inquiry and royal commissions.

The Widdicombe committee considered the choice between elections by thirds and all-out contests, and got it wrong, almost certainly because of its possibly misplaced attraction towards single-member wards, which are at odds with annual elections for a proportion of each authority. The Government wisely rejected all-out elections every four years but failed to substitute any other system in its place.

The House now has an opportunity to consider an alternative, the time for which has truly come. Conversations that I have had with colleagues suggest that electing a third of all authorities each year would enjoy great support.

Perhaps the strongest argument relates to accountability, a case made stronger by the introduction of the community charge, although not exclusively linked to it. In all too many cases, councils can arrange their programmes, and distort their spending, in such a way as to match the electoral cycle. They can ensure that any overspending hits the community charge payers' pockets at a time when the electors have no opportunity to cast a verdict on what is done with their money. My right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) recently proposed the introduction of a referendum on overspending. In my view, annual elections are a more realistic and more viable alternative.

Perhaps Widdicombe unconsciously put the strongest case against his report's own conclusions when he pointed out that, in Liverpool, a preoccupation with annual elections was a factor in the period 1974–83 when rate levels were kept under tight control, but when important expenditure decisions were deferred. I suggest that a greater preoccupation with the attitudes of charge payers could only be beneficial.

Another factor is continuity, which would surely be greater if all-out elections ceased. There have been numerous examples of the exaggerated effects of swings in political opinion. Is it really beneficial to the democratic process that in Greater Manchester, for instance, the Conservatives swung from 82 to 19 seats between the 1977 and 1981 elections, while Labour jumped from 23 to 78 seats? In similar circumstances, new controlling parties have sometimes had to appoint to their senior committee chairmanships people with no local government experience.

It is argued that annual elections discourage forward planning. However, local authorities do not have powers to legislate. Annual elections would be nonsense for the House of Commons, because there would never be an opportunity to assess the effect of a new law before it had to be judged. Nobody is talking about elections each year for the whole council, but the fact that a proportion of members was answerable to the electorate would concentrate minds wonderfully. A similar benefit would flow from a change from four-year to three-year terms for councillors.

Others claim that annual elections would put too much of a burden on party machines. In essence, however, political party organisations have no other purpose than to nominate candidates for election and to campaign for their success in those elections. Everything else is subsidiary to that aim. If they cannot contest elections once a year, they are not worthy of their role. I am sure that annual elections would encourage all parties to keep their machines in good trim.

In short, the reform that I propose would create a system that is simple and uniform, encourages continuity and, above all, accentuates accountability. I hope that it will commend itself to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Gary Waller, Sir Rhodes Boyson, Mr. James Pawsey, Mr. Graham Riddick, Mr. Jerry Hayes, Mr. Donald Thompson, Mr. Chris Butler, Mr. Cecil Franks, Mr. Gerald Bowden, Mr. Richard Alexander, Mr. William Powell and Mr. Simon Coombs.