HL Deb 01 February 2000 vol 609 cc132-42

(".—(1) Where a local authority's proposals under section 18 do not involve a form of executive for which a referendum is required, the authority must implement the proposals in accordance with the timetable included in the proposals.

(2) Any reference in this Part to a form of executive for which a referendum is required is a reference to—

  1. (a) a mayor and cabinet executive,
  2. (b) a mayor and council manager executive, or
  3. (c) a form of executive prescribed in regulations under section 10(5) which is expressed in those regulations to be a form of executive for which a referendum is required.").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 19 [Referendum in case of proposals involving elected mayor]:

Lord Whitty moved Amendments Nos. 180 and 181: Page 9, line 32, leave out ("an") and insert ("a form of"). Page 9, line 33, leave out ("which includes an elected mayor") and insert ("for which a referendum is required").

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Lord Whitty moved Amendment No. 182: Page 9, line 34, at end insert (", and (b) must draw up and send to the Secretary of State an outline of the fall-back proposals (referred to in this section as outline fall-back proposals) that they intend to implement if the proposals under section 18 are rejected in a referendum. (1A) Fall-back proposals are proposals—

  1. (a) for the operation of executive arrangements which do not involve a form of executive for which a referendum is required, or
  2. (b) for the operation of alternative arrangements (within the meaning of section (Alternative arrangements)).
(1B) In drawing up outline fall-back proposals, a local authority must take reasonable steps to consult local government electors, and other interested persons, in the authority's area. (1C) Outline fall-back proposals must include a timetable with respect to the implementation of detailed fall-back proposals which are based on the outline fall-back proposals in the event that the proposals under section 18 are rejected in a referendum. (1D) A local authority must send a copy of their outline fallback proposals to the Secretary of State at the same time that a copy of the proposals under section 18 is sent to him. (1E) A local authority may not hold a referendum under this section before the end of the period of two months beginning with the date on which a copy of the proposals under section 18 is sent to the Secretary of State.").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move.

[Amendments Nos. 182A and 183, as amendments to Amendment No. 182, not moved.]

On Question, Amendment No. 182 agreed to.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Dixon-Smith moved Amendment No. 184: Page 9, line 34, at end insert— ("( ) The result of a referendum held under this section shall not be binding on the authority unless more than 40 per cent. of the electorate vote in favour of the change.").

The noble Lord said: Amendments Nos. 184, 192, 193 and 250 seek to address what should be an extremely important constitutional point; namely, the point at which a vote by an electorate should have the power to force change.

We can all recall that in the Scottish referendum there was a clear answer which nobody had any problems with. It was not the highest of polls, but it was at least reasonable. However, I would suggest that the Welsh referendum, which produced a much narrower result, was less than satisfactory. It resulted in about 25 per cent of the electorate, or thereabouts, having the power to impose their will on the other 75 per cent. One might think that that is not appropriate.

The Bill contains the power for referendums to be held in local authority areas to change the constitutional arrangements within such areas. At Second Reading I asked what would happen on a 12 per cent poll if 7 per cent voted one way and only 5 per cent voted the other; should that really be sufficient to force a change as dramatic as would happen under the Bill as it stands?

It is worse than that. Let us suppose that only 12 electors voted—seven one way and five the other. One may say that that is ridiculous; it is not. That is what we are permitting. That result would be mandatory on the authority. I wonder about that.

The matter is also dealt with in draft regulations which we did not have when the amendments were tabled. However, they state nothing about voting or the number of votes required to validate a decision by a community. This is perhaps a new departure. However, the regular use of referendums is a new departure in our system. In new Labour we have a new government with many new ideas, and referendums seem to be attractive. They have been used and abused by others in the past. I am not so certain of the matter.

The other place speaks of itself with pride as being the democratic chamber. It is usually elected on a not unreasonable national turn-out. Sometimes it has been as high as 80 per cent. In some constituencies the figure is much lower. On the basis of such turn-out the other place regards itself as having democratic legitimacy.

As the noble Baronesses, Lady Farrington and Lady Hamwee will recognise, in the past it has been the wont of the other place to criticise local government. It has been said that with only a 30 per cent poll, sometimes more sometimes less depending on who and where you are, local government has lacked democratic legitimacy. I wonder about that in the context of what we are doing. That has been a constant theme from national governments for the whole of my career since I entered local government. It seems to me that it does not mean that a local authority is invalid in any way simply because it has a low turn-out at the poll. It could be, and, indeed, in law I believe it would be, taken as being the case. It might be argued that because 70 per cent of the electorate did not vote they were satisfied with what was happening and could not be bothered to turn out; I do not know. When I go down that particular road, I am in danger of destroying my own argument.

The difficulty we face is that there is no guidance or precision in the matter. I wondered whether the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Bill might come to our aid. I regret that it does not. Clause 95 states: Subject to the following provisions of this section, this Part applies to any referendum held throughout … (a) the United Kingdom; (b) one or more of England. Scotland. Wales and Northern Ireland; or (c) any region in England specified in Schedule Ito the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998.

There is no help for us there. We therefore fall back on regulations. I thought as a reasonable shot that, if we are seeking to get a community to commit itself to changing the way things are done, it might be not unreasonable to go for a good general election turnout figure and put in a floor at 40 per cent. That is the effect of Amendments Nos. 184, 192, 193 and 250. They state that, for a referendum to be mandatory upon the authority, half of a good general election turnout should vote in favour. Some may think that that is unreasonably ambitious; I do not.

I look forward with great interest to the Minister's reply. If he is prepared to make concessions which go a considerable way in the direction I have indicated, I may finish up a happy man. However, from the pleasant smile I see on his face I suspect that he is not intending to move as far as I would want him to. I beg to move.

Baroness Hanham

Amendments Nos. 220 and 235 stand in my name and are there to support my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith in his argument about referendums. I have taken a rather more jaundiced view of turn-out than he has, particularly in relation to local government. However, that does not undermine the argument he has put forward. I am happy to acknowledge his argument that it should be 40 per cent of a general elect ion turn-out rather than 40 per cent of a local government turn-out.

Through various pieces of legislation which the Government propose, we are desperately trying to engender in the electorate enormous enthusiasm for taking part in elections. Perhaps it is cynicism on my part but, for a number of reasons, I do not believe that the electorate will want to come rushing out to take part in referendums. The most salient is that it is extraordinarily difficult to get across to people's consciousness a one-issue matter, such as this. People like local government when it works and do not like it when it does not. For anything in between they are usually happy to stay at home. I do not believe there is anything in the Bill or in what has happened in the past that will shake that up.

However, if we are putting to them a one-issue matter, it is broader than an election manifesto which covers an enormous number of matters and is just a party vote. To ask for a specific answer is quite different to what has happened before. As my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith stated, it is only reasonable for there to be a threshold which underwrites the fact that the local people want what is proposed and are prepared to turn out and vote for it. They are not content to sit at home and let somebody else do it; they are so enthused and excited about the prospect put before them that they will leave their firesides and the television and come out and vote.

Lord Filkin

I understand, to an extent, why noble Lords suggest that there should be a threshold but we must be extremely cautious about going down that route. An obvious first point is that if there were such threshold turnouts before there was legitimacy, there would not be many local authorities with a mandate to govern in their areas.

Secondly, without labouring the point, many local authorities are resistant to the idea of new forms of political structure. Noble Lords are aware of that from previous discussions. However, the consequence of such a threshold, particularly when we know there is a problem with local democracy and local participation, would be severely to reduce the likelihood of change. That is what is worrying about this proposal. It is in danger of being seen as a covert resistance and defence of the status quo.

We know that there is a problem with local democracy; that the public are not enormously excited about it. Therefore the idea that the public may be the resurrection mechanism in that regard is potentially flawed. For 25 per cent of the electorate to turn out in such a referendum would be impressive and be a strong vote of interest by them. In fact, it would be a substantially greater vote of interest than that demonstrated in some local authority elections.

In the summer the Joint Committee considered this matter and did not recommend a threshold for the turn-out. The Government's guidance proposed in the constitution also makes clear that local authorities should attempt to maximise turn-out in terms of their arrangements and the days on which they hold such referendums. There is no good case made to have a threshold. Nevertheless, let us hope that high turnouts ensue.

Lord Harris of Haringey

I am still comparatively new to the ways of this Chamber but had not realised, until I listened to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, that it was customary to speak both for and against an amendment one was moving.

If the noble Lord's argument was, as I understand it to be, that a low turn-out in a local government election demonstrates that the population of that area is broadly satisfied with the performance of that local authority—I believe that is what he was implying and that that is the situation with which he is familiar in Essex—then surely the same principle applies to a referendum on this sort of matter. I suspect that if the fears and terrors outlined about this possible proposal were as great as some have suggested, people 'would come out and vote in this referendum. But if they do not feel it matters a great deal or they are broadly happy with what is going on, I suspect that they may not. In that case, imposing an arbitrary limit suggests, as my noble friend Lord Filkin said, that it is a covert means of imposing something about which Members of the Committee opposite are not happy.

I turn briefly to the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. She conjured up an image of people being enthused on matters which come before them in a referendum. I wish people were enthusiastic about matters of local government; that they could become excited about how their local councils organise themselves—we all hold that optimistic hope. But to state that people must be positively enthused as a minimum requirement before there can be change is unrealistic.

This Bill puts forward a number of hurdles before an elected mayor can be introduced. It is said that there must be a referendum. That is not something which will be lightly entered into by a local authority. Nor is it something that one can automatically assume will go one way or another. I suspect that in any area there will be a comparatively vigorous debate on the subject. It may not enthuse the majority of electors, but those interested will be engaged in that debate.

The amendment also suggests a significant threshold as a requirement for a referendum. But to introduce an arbitrary hurdle which must be passed before a new system can be introduced is unnecessary. I suspect, as suggested by my noble friend Lord Filkin, that this amendment is really concerned with a distrust of the system first put forward by some Members of the Committee opposite.

Baroness Hamwee

The notion that a low turn-out equates with broad satisfaction left me wondering about my 20 years in local government when, in every election in which I stood, more than 60 per cent of my ward turned out. I had thought that that was some sort of indication of satisfaction; perhaps I should review that view. I hear from behind me that they must have hated me!

Sadly, I agree about the lack of realism in this amendment. It does not talk about a turn-out; it talks about, 40 per cent. of the electorate". By definition therefore the turn-out would have to be at least a little higher than that. I take the point that it is not necessarily the end of the argument to say that we are not accustomed to imposing thresholds for any form of election to be valid. But the point cannot be answered in that way.

The referendum must stand or fall on its own merits. On these Benches we are concerned about the proposals for elected mayors as put forward in the model that the Government are promoting, but we accept that it should be the decision of the local community. To require a given level of the electorate to vote undermines that approach. After all, electors have the right not to vote, sometimes to make a point. Some Members of the Committee may have heard me tell this story before, but it is relevant here; I refer to an occasion in my borough where a spoilt ballot paper was seen to have written up the side of it, inevitably in green ink, "They think I am voting, but I am not".

6.45 p.m.

Lord Whitty

Irrespective of the last unnamed constituent of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, clearly her ward is the epitome of democratic participation in that 60 per cent is, regrettably, higher than almost any area of local authority experience in recent years. We are debating this amendment against the background of low turn-outs in local authority elections for a number of years, and falling.

I hope that the kind of glee and enthusiasm conjured up by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, will eventually result from these changes in the way in which we are operating local authorities. We can hardly expect it to be there in advance. The kind of thresholds discussed here—whether or not my more conspiracy-theorist colleagues are correct that they are intended as a way of preserving the status quo—would regrettably tend to have that effect were it not for the fact that other provisions prevent local authorities from maintaining the status quo.

This is an important issue and one that the Government considered carefully. As my noble friend Lord Filkin said, the Joint Committee, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, also considered it carefully. However, broadly for the reasons I outlined and on grounds of practicality, it did not consider it sensible to require a threshold. To be credible, in one sense it would have to be fairly low in relation to actual achieved local authority election turn-outs, but to have a broader political authority it would have to be too high to be achieved. Therefore on grounds of practicality that approach was rejected.

Grounds of presentation and politics are also involved in this issue. When a situation provides that one can obtain victory in a referendum but that that victory can be snatched away by the fact that the turnout provision has not been met, the political consequences may be dire. Members of the Committee will recall an earlier referendum in Scotland in the 1970s. The effect of that was detrimental both to the politics of Scotland and the United Kingdom. It has taken 20 years to put that right.

That is a considerably worse consequence than a consequence which has too low a turn-out and too low a majority. After all, a majority of one is recognised as legitimate. Hopefully, we will achieve a majority substantially greater than that in the new forms of government, but a majority of anything which is then snatched away is bad politics and a bad way of introducing an alternative form of executive structure.

Therefore, while I accept some of the sentiments presented by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, I can give him no comfort on his proposal. The Government would not wish to see this provision written on the face of the Bill and I ask the noble Lord to withdraw it.

Lord Dixon-Smith

We have had an interesting and useful debate. The point we raised is an important one. Moreover—dare I say it?—it has had the effect of lightening the atmosphere in the Chamber which was becoming somewhat heavy.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Hanham for her support. I should point out to the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, that nothing in these proposals would have prevented elections. The amendments in this group only talk about referendums, which are a novel introduction into the political proceedings of this country; an introduction about which there is still a great deal of interest and, indeed, disagreement.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, talked about people voting if they are affected. If people knew that a floor had been set, they might—if, in fact, they were enthused—be persuaded to turn out and vote in order to beat that floor. I gather from the noble Lord's remarks that he suspects that people would be singularly bored by the whole business and that, therefore, we would actually be putting through proposals which lacked the support of the community.

I hear what the Minister says about the dangers of winning a referendum but then being cut off by a threshold. However, I do not think that that is a matter we should necessarily accept. I certainly do not accept it overall. But I would accept that risk rather than the risk that is also present in the Bill of seven votes to five carrying a community comprising several hundred thousand people. That is equally possible and I do not accept that it is valid.

I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, on the turnout in her ward when she was in elective office. That was a magnificent result. Indeed, I wish all other communities were performing as well. As the Minister said, it is immensely regrettable that that is not the case. I do not apologise for bringing forward this issue and I do not feel inclined to withdraw my amendment. A little exercise will do us all good; indeed, a democratic vote in what is called an "undemocratic" Chamber would be of interest to us all. I wish to test the opinion of the Committee.

6.52 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 184) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 82; Not-Contents, 141.

Division No. 1
Anelay of St. Johns. B. Lamont of Lerwick, L.
Astor, V. Liverpool, E.
Astor of Hever, L, Luke, L.
Belstead, L. Lyell, L.
Blackwell, L. Mackay of Ardbrecknish, L.
Blaker, L. MacLaurin of Knebworth, L.
Blatch, B. Masham of llton, B.
Boardman, L. Mayhew of Twysden, L.
Brabazon of Tara, L. Montrose, D.
Brougham and Vaux, L. Moynihan, L.
Buscombe, B. Naseby, L.
Byford, B. Newton of Braintree, L.
Campbell of Croy, L. Northbrook, L.
Carnarvon, E. Northesk, E.
Cope of Berkeley, L. Norton of Louth, L.
Courtown, E. [Teller] O'Cathain, B.
Cox, B. Palmer, L
Craigavon, V. Park of Monmouth, B.
Dean of Harptree, L. Pike, B.
Denham, L. Pilkington of Oxenford, L.
Dixon-Smith, L. Plummer of St. Marylebone, L.
Elliott of Morpeth, L. Rees, L.
Ferrers, E. Renton, L.
Flather, B. Roberts of Conwy, L.
Fraser of Carmyllie, L. Rotherwick, L.
Freeman, L. Seccombe, B.
Gardner of Parkes, B. Selborne, E.
Glentoran, L. Shaw of Northstead, L.
Griffiths of Fforestfach, L. Skelmersdale, L.
Hanham, B Stewartby, L.
Hanningfield, L. Stodart of Leaston, L.
Harmar-Nicholls, L. Strathclyde, L.
Harris of Peckham, L. Swinfen, L.
Hayhoe, L. Thomas of Gwydir, L.
Henley, L. [Teller] Trefgarne, L.
Hogg, B. Trumpington, B.
Howe, E. Tugendhat, L.
Hunt of Wirral, L. Vivian, L.
James of Holland Park, B. Waddington, L.
Kimball, L. Wilcox, B.
Knight of Collingtree, B. Young, B.
Addington, L. Kennedy of The Shaws, B.
Allenby of Megiddo, V. King of West Bromwich, L.
Alli, L. Kirkhill, L.
Alton of Liverpool, L. Lea of Crondall, L.
Amos, B. Lipsey, L.
Archer of Sandwell, L. Lockwood, B.
Ashley of Stoke, L. Lofthouse of Pontefract, L.
Ashton of Upholland, B. Longford, E.
Bach, L. McIntosh of Haringey, L. [Teller]
Barnett, L.
Bassam of Brighton, L. McIntosh of Hudnall, B.
Blackstone, B. MacKenzie of Culkein, L.
Blease, L. Mackenzie of Framwellgate, L.
Borrie, L. Mackie of Benshie, L.
Bragg, L. Maddock, B.
Brett, L. Mason of Barnsley, L.
Brooke of Alverthorpe, L. Massey of Darwen, B.
Brookman, L. Miller of Chilthorne Domer, B.
Brooks of Tremorfa, L. Milner of Leeds, L.
Burlison, L. Molloy, L.
Carter, L.[Teller] Morris of Manchester, L.
Clarke of Hampstead, L. Murray of Epping Forest, L.
Cocks of Hartcliffe, L. Newby, L.
Craig of Radley, L. Nicol, B.
Crawley, B. Orme, L.
Currie of Marylebone, L. Perry of Walton, L.
David, B. Phillips of Sudbury, L.
Davies of Coity, L. Pitkeathley, B.
Davies of Oldham, L. Plant of Highfield, L.
Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, B. Prys-Davies, L.
Desai, L. Ramsay of Cartvale, B.
Dholakia, L. Randall of St. Budeaux, L.
Donoughue, L. Rea, L.
Dormand of Easington, L. Rees-Mogg, L.
Dubs, L. Rendell of Babergh, B
Elder, L. Rennard, L
Evans of Parkside, L. Renwick of Clifton, L.
Evans of Watford, L. Rodgers of Quarry Bank, L.
Falconer of Thoroton, L. Rogan, L.
Falkland, V. Rogers of Riverside, L.
Farrington of Ribbleton, B. Sainsbury of Turville, L.
Faulkner of Worcester, L. Sandwich, E.
Filkin, L. Sawyer, L.
Gale, B. Scotland of Asthal, B.
Gavron, L. Serota, B.
Gilbert, L. Sharp of Guildford, B.
Goodhart, L. Shepherd, L.
Goudie, B. Simon, V.
Graham of Edmonton, L. Smith of Clifton, L.
Hamwee, B. Smith of Gilmorehill, B.
Hardy of Wath, L. Smith of Leigh, L.
Harris of Greenwich, L. Stoddart of Swindon, L.
Harris of Haringey, L. Stone of Blackheath, L.
Harris of Richmond, B. Strabolgi, L.
Harrison, L. Taylor of Blackburn, L.
Haskel, L. Thomas of Gresford, L.
Hayman, B. Thomas of Walliswood, B.
Hilton of Eggardon, B. Thornton, B.
Hogg of Cumbernauld, L. Tope, L.
Hollis of Heigham, B. Tordoff, L.
Howells of St Davids, B. Turner of Camden, B.
Howie of Troon, L. Walker of Doncaster, L.
Hoyle, L. Warner, L.
Hughes of Woodside, L. Warwick of Undercliffe, B.
Hunt of Kings Heath, L. Weatherill, L.
Irvine of Lairg, L. (Lord Clmncellor) Whitaker, B.
Whitty, L.
Janner of Braunstone, L. Wilkins, B.
Jay of Paddington, B. (Lord Privy Seal) Williams of Crosby, B.
Williams of Elvel, L.
Jeger, B. Williams of Mostyn, L.
Judd, L. Woolmer of Leeds, L.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

7.2 p.m.

Lord Dixon-Smith moved Amendment No. 185: Page 9, line 34. at end insert— ("( )Before any referendum is held under this section, the question to be asked in the referendum shall be referred to the Electoral Commission for their determination.").

The noble Lord said: Amendments Nos. 185, 194 and 251 in this group can be dealt with quickly. They were all tabled before we had the regulations and guidance which have subsequently appeared. If the Minister can give me an assurance that the draft question which appears in the draft regulations will not be altered and will be the question that is used in local referendums, we need pursue this matter no further. I look forward to hearing his comments. I hope that he will give me that assurance. I beg to move.

Lord Whitty

I can give the noble Lord a quick response. I was hoping that Members of the Committee had reached the provision at page 159 of the draft regulations. I am glad that the noble Lord has done so. It is subject to the same consultation as the other provisions in the document. If any Members of the Committee, or others, have views on that matter, we shall take them into account. Once the final version of the regulations is decided, there will be no variation on the question that is to be asked. At a later stage we may involve the electoral Commission, when that body comes into being. It will not come into being until we progress further with local authorities in considering some of the options under this Bill. I refer in this connection to an amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, which we have not yet discussed. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, will recognise that we have this matter in hand.

Baroness Hamwee

I have an amendment in this group. I am happy to acknowledge that the Government have the matter in hand.

Lord Dixon-Smith

I am grateful for the Minister's reply. We shall have to consider the outcome of the regulations' stately progress. However, at this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Whitty moved Amendment No. 186: Page 9, line 36, after first ("proposals") insert ("under section 18").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Whitty moved Amendment No. 187: Page 9, line 40, leave out from beginning to end of line 18 on page 10 and insert ("under section 18, the authority—

  1. (a) may not implement those proposals.
  2. (b) must draw up detailed fall-back proposals which are based on the outline fall-back proposals, and
  3. (c) must send a copy of the detailed fall-back proposals to the Secretary of State.
( ) In drawing up outline fall-back proposals or detailed fallback proposals under this section. a local authority must comply with any directions given by the Secretary of State. ( ) Outline fall-back proposals and detailed fall-back proposals must include such details of the executive arrangements or alternative arrangements to which they relate as the Secretary of State may direct. ( ) Subsections (2)(b), (3)(a) and (4)(c) of section 18 are to apply to detailed fall-back proposals involving executive arrangements as they apply to proposals under that section. ( ) Subsections (3)(a) and (4)(c) of that section are to apply to detailed fall-back proposals involving alternative arrangements as they apply to proposals under that section. ( ) A local authority must implement detailed fall-back proposals in accordance with the timetable mentioned in subsection (1C).").

[Amendment No. 188, as an amendment to Amendment No. 187, not moved.]

On Question, Amendment No. 187 agreed to.

Clause 19, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 20 [Operation of, and publicity for, executive arrangements]:

Lord Whitty moved Amendment No. 189: Page 10, line 35, at end insert (", and (v) specifies the address of their principal office").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 190 and 191 not moved]

Clause 20, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 21 [Revised executive arrangements]:

[Amendments Nos. 192 to 195 not moved.]

Lord Whitty moved Amendment No. 196: Leave out Clause 21 and insert the following new clause