HL Deb 18 December 1984 vol 458 cc561-9

4.25 p.m.

The Earl of Avon rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 22nd November be approved. [3rd Report from the Joint Committee.]

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. In this order the Government seek the approval of the House for the cancellation of the GLC and the metropolitan county council elections that would otherwise be held next May. Noble Lords will, I am sure, remember the detailed—and at times lively—debates which surrounded last Session's paving Bill. Indeed, the persuasive arguments put forward by this House played a key part in determining the final form of the Local Government (Interim Provisions) Act.

However, it was agreed by both Houses of Parliament that it was right to put on the statute hook what is now Part II of that Act—provision to suspend the elections, subject to the approval by both Houses of an affirmative resolution to this effect. That is to say, both Houses accepted the view that it makes no sense to hold elections to councils which would have only 11 months to run. This would be the case if Parliament enacts the Local Government Bill.

From the outset, the Government made it clear that the order bringing Part II of the paving Bill into force would not be made until the principle of abolition had been approved by the other place, by giving a Second Reading to the Local Government Bill. That Second Reading was given two weeks ago, with a majority of 135.

I should like to explain why this order cannot wait until the Local Government Bill has received a Second Reading in this House. The answer is very simple and easy to appreciate: basically it would be too late. We cannot be sure when the other place will pass the Bill across; but the Bill is unlikely to come to this House in sufficient time to allow this order to be debated subsequently while still giving adequate notice of cancellation of the elections.

The main purposes of this order are to suspend the 1985 elections and to extend to 1st April 1986 the term of office of the existing councillors of the seven abolition authorities. This really was the point that this House in its wisdom suggested, and the compromise was ultimately agreed.

In the unlikely event of the main abolition Bill failing to reach the statute book, there is provision to reinstate the elections. That would be done as swiftly as practicable. Section 1(2) of the paving Act provides power to reinstate the elections by order, also subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. The Government have already given a commitment—which I now reaffirm—that, if the main Bill falls, that order will be made as soon as practicable. I believe that this is a safeguard which will in some measure allay the fears perhaps expressed by the noble Baroness in her tabling of the amendment.

However, the House may share my opinion that, given the Government's clear commitment to abolish this unnecessary tier of local government, and the substantial Second Reading majority in the other place, it is improbable that the Bill should fail. Against that background, it would be unnecessary and contrary to precedent for elections to the abolition authorities to be held next year.

This order will bring Part II of the Local Government (Interim Provisions) Act 1984 into force on 1st February 1985. Part II comprises two sections: Section 2, which is concerned with the ordinary elections to the Greater London Council and to the metropolitan county councils; and Section 3, which is concerned with the quorum for meetings of those authorities.

With effect from the coming into force of this order, Section 2 of the Act suspends the ordinary elections of councillors of the GLC and MCCs. It extends to 1st April 1986 the term of office of serving GLC/MCC councillors. Any councillor elected to fill a casual vacancy will likewise serve until 1st April 1986.

Subsection (3) of Section 2 adapts the rules about the filling of casual vacancies. The effect is that a by-election to fill a vacancy arising on or after 1st October 1985 will not be held unless, when the vacancy occurs, the total number of unfilled vacancies exceeds one-third of the whole number of members.

Finally, Section 2 amends the provisions made in the Local Government Act 1972 relating to the years in which elections to metropolitan district councils are held. This is a purely consequential amendment. The effect is to ensure that the cycle of metropolitan district elections continues undisturbed by the suspension of the metropolitan county council elections. The corresponding provisions of the 1972 Act in relation to the Greater London Council are repealed by Section 2(4).

Noble Lords may wonder why 1st February has been chosen as the appointed day. The answer is that it allows time for both Houses to debate this order, while allowing three months' notice of cancellation—sufficient time to avoid abortive work and unnecessary uncertainty. The order also brings Section 3 of the paving Act into force. This is the section which allows the Secretary of State to prescribe a smaller quorum for meetings of the GLC or of a MCC. The present statutory quorum is one quarter of the whole number of members of the council. Section 3 allows the Secretary of State by order to reduce that number if he considers it necessary for the transaction of the business. That order-making power is subject to the negative resolution procedure. Ideally, Part II of the paving Act would confine itself to elections. But then, ideally, we should not have councillors threatening to obstruct the will of Parliament.

The cancellation of the 1985 elections was one of the major issues during the passage of the paving legislation. Noble Lords debated it with their customary thoroughness. I do not therefore propose to repeat the arguments here. The reasons for cancelling the elections are quite simple: it would be unprecedented and wasteful to hold elections in circumstances where the councillors so elected would serve for less than a year. Both Houses of Parliament, as I have said, acknowledged this view.

The noble Baroness, in the amendment which she has tabled, says she regards the draft order as prejudicial to our future consideration of the Local Government Bill. I cannot believe that the House will have any such inhibitions and I look forward, in fact, to close and detailed consideration of the Bill when it comes before this House.

The Government kept their promise to Parliament. We have not sought to make this order to bring Part II of the Local Government (Interim Provisions) Act into operation before the principle of abolition had been debated in the other place and before absolutely necessary. The principle has now been accepted by the Second Reading given in the other place. Part II of the paving Act has already been passed by both Houses of Parliament. I have explained why we cannot justifiably delay its coming into force any longer. Last week, the other place debated and approved the draft order which is before your Lordships today. I ask this House also to approve the appointed day order.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 22nd November be approved. [3rd Report from the Joint Committee.]—(The Earl of Avon.)

4.33 p.m.

Baroness Birk rose to move, as an amendment to the above Motion, at end to insert ("but this House regards the draft order as prejudicial to the future consideration by this House of the Local Government Bill.").

The noble Baroness said: In moving the amendment, may I briefly take noble Lords back to 28th June this year, when my noble and learned friend Lord Elwyn-Jones moved an all-party amendment to the Local Government (Interim Provisions) Bill, now the paving Act, to ensure that elections due to take place in May 1985 were not cancelled until Parliament had made a decision? In arguing this case, my noble and learned friend said at col. 1035 of Hansard: and I say Parliament, not one Chamber of the Parliament—until both Houses of Parliament, decide what is to take the place of the existing councils".

The amendment was won by a majority of 48, a highly decisive victory. The Government's response to this substantial defeat for them was to drop the unelected interim boards—or councils as they called them, but they were really boards—leave elected members in office until May 1985 and make the order cancelling the elections, which was, I believe, a commencement order at the time and not subject to parliamentary procedure, into an affirmative order subject to affirmative procedure. Explaining this, the noble Viscount the Leader of the House, referring to past instances of cancelled elections, said on 16th July at col. 1185 of Hansard: Certainly—and I say this at once, to concede the point made by the noble Baroness— that is a reference to me— on those occasions the cancellation was done in the main Bill abolishing the authorities. But in this case, in view of the timing of the elections, there is no alternative".

That is what the Minister has just said in presenting the order to us today. But the question of there being no alternative because of the timing is, of course, the Government's own choice. It is not something that has been put upon the Government. The Government decided to do it in this way. They decided on this not only before the Bill had even been seen, but before it had even been drafted and before, indeed, it had even been cobbled together in the way that it has now been presented in another place. Stating that the order cancelling elections should be subject to the approval of both Houses of Parliament, the noble Viscount the Leader of the House went on to say at cols. 1185 and 1186: It will provide a further opportunity for your Lordships to consider this matter, and will I hope set at rest any fears that proper regard is not being paid to the views of this House".

There were noble Lords, including the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, who saw this as a means of this House expressing its view on the question of elections. It is that order that we are discussing today. And since it is the general tradition of this House not to vote against orders passed by another place, the amendment that I am moving is to underline the proper constitutional role of this House when the right of people to vote is being removed, to emphasise the words of the noble Viscount the Leader of the House concerning regard being paid to the views of this House and to invite the Government to think again without our reversing the decision of the elected Chamber.

Under the Interpretation Act 1978, power to make an order includes the power to revoke it. Therefore, the Government can make an order and have it approved by Parliament before 1st February or they can revoke the present order. This is why the amendment in my name and supported by my noble friends does not offend tradition, is not a wrecking amendment but is indeed helpful to the Government in giving them the chance to think again in the light of all that has happened not only since we discussed the paving Bill but since the Secretary of State's decision to bring in the draft order after the Second Reading of the abolition Bill in another place. This, as it stands now, abruptly pre-empts full discussion of the Bill in this House. An affirmative order without any real comment attached is an unhappy and unsatisfactory substitute for elections that should be taking placce normally.

Incidentally, I must point out that cancelling elections was not a manifesto commitment. So there is not even that excuse for such an undemocratic move. I am sure that many noble Lords who supported the original amendment and were subsequently persuaded to accept the affirmative procedure envisaged that before they were asked to approve the order they would see a Bill drafted following considerable consultation and some element of consensus at least within their own party—in all, a well thought-out although perhaps not desirable measure, and certainly not a Bill riddled with reserve powers retained by the Secretary of State because, frankly, the Government really do not know what to do in the Bill, and patched together with the unpopular and undemocratic joint boards and quangos.

The Bill now lurching through another place has roused the anger not only of the Opposition parties but also of many Members of the Government party, including ex-Ministers who spoke strongly against both the paving Bill and now the abolition Bill and some who voted against it, among them Mr. Francis Pym, who referred to the fact that the Government were being far too hasty and had given too little forethought before they rushed into a great reform. That was on the paving Bill. But their acute distress reached a peak the other night when 19 Conservatives voted for a Conservative amendment opposed by the Government. Many others abstained, and the Government squeaked home with a majority of 23. The Minister referred to the majority on Second Reading of, I think, 185.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, it was 135.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, 135. That was Second Reading. Now we have seen a bare majority of 23, and the Bill still has quite a long way to go. I do not think that the opposition in another place within the Government's own party can be under-estimated, since it takes a fundamental issue and a grave crisis of conscience and frustration for Members of Parliament of either House to vote against their own Government. This is something which is absolutely true and which the Government have to take very seriously, which makes our role even more important. The Government will ignore this at their peril.

The Bill still has a long way to go, and not only in another place. It is far too early for this House to be jolted into a vital decision today which will restrict its duty, which is to scrutinise with the greatest care all legislation coming before it and to exercise its constitutional role as a revising Chamber. Outside Parliament, opposition is widely and thickly spread. Academics, local government, voluntary bodies and all those concerned with the various functions which will be fragmented among a variety of bodies are vociferous in their fears and criticisms. Seldom has there been so much unity on such a broad base of discontent as this Bill is causing, and doing away with elections comes top in unpopularity in the opinion polls that have been carried out recently.

This afternoon we are not discussing the abolition Bill. What we are concerned with is the cancellation of the 1985 elections. Now that we have seen the Bill as presented to the Commons, or had a rather oblique view of it, the draft order is even more worrying than the thought of it was when we debated it on the paving Bill back in the summer. I think few would disagree, whether or not they are in favour of abolition, that the Bill is in immediate need of major surgery, including some transplants of democratic realism. But the cancellation of elections means the Government are putting the Bill in a time-limited straitjacket which must seriously inhibit and overrule full consideration by this House. There really is no valid reason for this unique electoral precedent, except to keep the Government's self-determined timetable.

The date of 1st April 1986 for commencement is arbitrary and may not even be achieved unless radical changes are made. The Minister put forward the argument—we heard it before—that it was not worth having elections for just another 11 months. That and the cost argument are unworthy and dangerous. We really cannot afford to sell democracy cheap in this way, whether it is a question of money—and it is a small amount in our total public expenditure—or whether it is a question of time. There must be time for re-thinking and carrying out proper rather than shadow consultations if the Bill, even on the Government's terms, is to make legislative sense. It is highly disturbing that the Government should be setting a new and dangerous precedent on the basis of rushed, ill-considered and often contradictory proposals. This is a slippery slope down which the Government should be persuaded not to slide.

If the elections take place normally in May 1985, the Government will not subject themselves to the charge of unconstitutional behaviour and will give themselves the breathing space essential to good parliamentary government. They will have the opportunity to produce a better Bill—and I should have thought that that is what is wanted. Today, in this House, we should really be speaking with one voice, regardless of our various attitudes to the abolition Bill itself. This amendment, couched in the mildest terms, will give the Government a chance to consider revoking this order in the manner I have described so that something better will emerge from the present parliamentary rag-bag.

The Minister said it was improbable that the Bill would fail. In the state it is in at the moment, and given the way things are going, nothing is completely improbable; certainly nothing is impossible. This is why I believe that the solution we are putting before the House is something that should he taken up, because in the end it goes back to the Commons and then the Commons can make its own decision. There is no instruction for it to do so. But at least we shall he confident that we are doing the job we are meant to do, and doing it properly.

A great responsibility rests with this House. Indeed, we are nowadays widely recognised as the essential bulwark against the excesses of Governments backed by overwhelming majorities and as the protector of people's rights, particularly their electoral rights. It is our duty to try to redress the balance. This amendment will enable us to express strongly, but not destructively, our deep anxiety, and will enable the Government to have second thoughts and revoke the order. I beg to move.

Moved, as an amendment to the above Motion, at end to insert ("but this House regards the draft order as prejudicial to the future consideration by this House of the Local Government Bill.").—(Baroness Birk.)

4.46 p.m.

Baroness Stedman

My Lords, as the noble Earl and the noble Baroness have said, this order is one which is seeking approval to cancel the GLC and the metropolitan county elections on the basis that some time in the coming months the metropolitan counties and the GLC will be abolished. That is presupposing that the abolition Bill survives its passage through both Houses and that the Government Back-Benches will also show some sustained enthusiasm for it in both Houses. The Minister has said he thinks that all will be well, that there will be no hiccups on the way. But I would remind him that in the final form of the Local Government (Interim Provisions) Act, under which this order is tabled, there is little relationship to the Bill which came to your Lordships originally on 22nd May. That paving Bill was changed out of all recognition by your Lordships, and, while it is still far from perfect, we did achieve the concession that this order would not be tabled until after Second Reading of the Bill in another place, that the period of office of the present GLC and metropolitan councillors would be extended for one year, and that both Houses would have a chance to discuss this order.

This is the order which abolishes elections to authorities which Parliament has not yet decided to abolish, and it means that many thousands of electors in the areas of the GLC and the metropolitan counties are to be disenfranchised now and at by-elections during the coming year—and this at the very same time as the Government are starting legislation to widen the franchise at general elections. It just does not make sense. We have said from these Benches many times that a piecemeal and patchwork approach to local government only creates a shambles. The abolition Bill has not yet been passed, and many of us still feel that the Government may come to regret forcing through this order at this time. Much will be left, and is being left, to Whitehall civil servants, and, however wise and good they are, you cannot vote out a civil servant; and so the traditional, democratic means of ensuring fair play and of giving the electors a democratic choice of how they are governed, and by whom, will not apply in these areas.

It would not be quite so bad if the proposed quangos and joint boards who are to take over the major functions were themselves to be elected. But no one will directly elect the members of the joint boards, even though they are to take over the powers of the directly-elected metropolitan councils and the GLC. As I have said, the timing of this order is a result of a concession which was wrung out of the Government by this House at the time of the paving Bill.

While we on these Benches still think that the order is premature, as far as we are concerned we do not feel that the acceptance of the order as it stands would, in the terms of the amendment, he prejudicial to the future consideration of the main Bill by your Lordships. We shall have many criticisms to make and many amendments to propose to the main Bill at the appropriate time. We would like to know what will happen if the main Bill does not pass through both Houses. What will happen if the proposed abolition timetable cannot be achieved? When and how will elections be resumed, if necessary?

I believe that it is becoming increasingly obvious that the Government have not given enough or proper thought to how they will prepare the way to do what they have it in mind to do. But we shall not go into the Lobby from these Benches tonight in support of the amendment because we believe that the order places no inhibitions on any of us in considering the main Bill when it comes to us.

4.51 p.m.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, I am happy to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, after her robust declaration that she considers that this Motion is not prejudicial to the main Bill. I am bound to say that I take the same view. The appearance of an amendment of this type is, fortunately, very rare on the Order Paper, and I personally would hope that it would never happen at all. There has been an amended statutory order. I can hear noble Lords opposite murmuring; the noble Lord, Lord McCarthy, successfully moved a similar amendment to a statutory order last year. But I think that is the only one, and I hope that this will be the last one that we shall see. It is not out of order, but it is certainly out of convention.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, I am afraid that I do not have the papers about procedure with me, but I remember reading that there are a lot of precedents even for voting orders down in this House and for tabling amendments to them. There are very many more than perhaps the noble Lord seems to realise; indeed, many more than I realised until I looked it up.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her information. I, too, have looked up the matter with care. There is precedent, but I think that there is only one. There have been Motions put down to Second Readings, again to give the Opposition a chance to vote against something which they did not like. However, as regards, in particular, a statutory order, which should be subject to "Aye" or "No", this is a regrettable practice. I have expressed my view, though other noble Lords may think differently. But the conventions of this House are next-door to being as important as its rules of order. However, I accept that noble Lords and noble Baronesses opposite feel very strongly on this matter. Therefore, having made that point I shall pass on to the major question, as to whether or not this statutory order, with the powers that are contained in it, would be prejudicial to the main Bill.

I must say that I warmly agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, who had some criticisms to make about the major Bill. I understand her point of view and apppreciate that many other people have similar criticisms. But the effect that this order could have on the main Bill is really noticeable. In fact, it says in the paving Bill that if the main Bill falls then the Minister has given an undertaking that this will be revoked. So there is no prejudice to the general position of Parliament; and, as far as debating the main Bill goes, I cannot believe that anything that we do or say tonight will handicap noble Lords opposite when they come to discuss the main Bill. I am quite certain that they will feel uninhibited from going on day after day and night after night. I thought I would get some support on that point! Next summer is going to be a long, hot summer for some of us. I really do not think that the noble Baroness has a good point in that respect. We are undoubtedly going to have some very long and very interesting debates next summer.

The noble Baroness referred to the proceedings in another place and to the distinguished ex-Ministers who were critical of the Government's Bill. I noticed that a distinguished ex-Minister on her side of the House threatened noble Lords here that if we were unwise enough to support this Bill when it came here he would threaten us with the Abolition of the House of Lords Act 1649, and so we had better look out. I do not believe that noble Lords will take much notice of that. I am sure that on both sides of the House we shall do whatever we think is right.

But I make the point roundly to the noble Baroness—who most elegantly and cogently, as always, argued her case—that these machinery orders which abolish elections next year and prolong the life of the existing councillors until April 1986 are simply machinery provisions made on the assumption that the local government Bill will be on the statute book. If that is not the case then the machinery falls. So it really will not affect anyone. It is a necessary paving measure, and I hope that noble Lords—except those who have naturally made up their minds that they dislike the whole thing—will not take any notice of the rather beguiling amendment which the noble Baroness has moved so persuasively. But if noble Lords opposite still feel that they want to go into the Lobby, I hope that the amendment which the noble Baroness has put forward will be firmly voted down.