HL Deb 22 November 2000 vol 619 cc926-34

. In sub-paragraph (4) of Schedule 12 to the Local Government Act 1972 for the words "ten, or one third of the local government electors present at the meeting" there is substituted "fifty local government electors present at the meeting or 2 per cent. of the electorate".").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to move Amendment No. 264. Hitherto in discussing referendums in the Bill, we have talked about large scale referendums. I want briefly to concentrate on referendums which are on a small scale.

Amendment No. 264 deals with the threshold for parish polls. I have a very good friend in the Commons, Bill Rammell, who is the MP for Harlow. He told me of a situation in his constituency drawn to his attention by Mr Ed Borton, the parish council chairman of the village of Nazeing. I am told that a local resident, acting independently of the parish council, summoned a formal parish meeting under the Local Government Act 1972.

His purpose was not to discuss key issues of concern, such as local vandalism, changes in rural bus services or the contentious question of whether or not Epping Forest council uses its powers of planning enforcement fairly. He called the meeting to ask for a ballot on the question, Do you want to keep the pound sterling as the currency of the United Kingdom? We all have a view on that question. After the next election, this Government may well take steps to provide everybody in the country with the opportunity to answer it. However, the case which I make, as does Mr Borton and the National Association of Local Councils, is that this is an abuse of the use of the Local Government Act and the power of parish councils. To ask that question would have cost the ratepayers of that area £1,587.

The amendment is not about Europe. It does not stray into any other big field. It argues about the sense or nonsense of the trigger which allows parish polls to be carried out. As my amendment shows, if a meeting is called at which half a dozen of the local government electors are present, a third—that is two—can trigger a parish poll. That would involve wasteful expenditure.

In the parish of Frinton and Walton in Essex, which is well known to me and others, a resident threatened to call a parish poll at a cost to the parish of £3,500 unless the council agreed not to spend money on a new badge for its mayor. That cannot be a proper use of a poll. Duston parish in Northampton was recently subjected to a poll on a planning issue. The poll was called by just one person and cost the council and hence the taxpayers well over £5,500.

This amendment says that we should be realistic and sensitive to expenditure which is not necessarily needlessly incurred, but which is incurred through incorrect use of the mechanism. I suggest that there should be at least 50 local electors present and not one third of just six or seven; or, alternatively, 2 per cent of the electorate. That would be a powerful barrier to people fecklessly or recklessly seeking to call for that money to be spent.

The National Association of Local Councils has represented parish and town councils for over 100 years. Today I received a letter from John Findlay, its chief executive, in which he says, The legislation as it stands does not require such groups to demonstrate any significant public support for the poll, yet the cost to the local community can be as much as £7,000, depending on the size of the electorate".

Therefore, while I am speaking on behalf of my friends Bill Rammell, the MP for Harlow, and Ed Borton, the chairman of the parish council, the amendment also has the backing of the whole of local government at that level. Their views should be heard and I hope that the Minister will recognise that we are taking this opportunity to air them.

This Bill may not be the right vehicle and it may not be the right amendment. But if the Minister indicates sympathy for the principle—that is, to take away the power from people who may have the best of intentions but who needlessly call polls—then those outside the House and myself will be satisfied. I beg to move.

9.45 p.m.

Lord Rennard

My Lords, I should like briefly to support Amendment No. 264. I concur entirely with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton.

I have considerable scepticism of the democratic worth of referendums, but even they can be abused if it is too easy to call a referendum and thus incur considerable local costs. It may be, for example, that there is considerable local controversy as to whether or not to fill in the local duck pond, and that question may well best be settled by the holding of a parish poll. However, when questions are raised of the sort referred to by the noble Lord—indeed, I believe there is a euro-sceptic campaign to try to abuse the parish poll process to air issues which are totally inappropriate for parish polls—it is much more sensible to raise the threshold to perhaps 50 electors attending or 2 per cent of the electorate signing that they would like such a parish poll before their money can be spent on polls of that nature.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, those who raise the issue of the duck pond must be "quackeirs"!

Lord Bach

My Lords, perhaps I can intervene before any more remarks of that kind are made.

Although he is not in his place, my noble friend Lord Bassam has told this House on more than one occasion that he was introduced to politics by a parish poll in the village in which he then lived. I, as a parish councillor over the past few years, was involved in a parish poll, which we lost, as to where a leisure centre should be sited. So such polls have a value.

However, we have real sympathy with the concerns of my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton in relation to parish and town council polls. We too are aware of the recent events where a local group sought to use them to pursue its aims on the European single currency and I say no more about that.

The situation concerning those polls has shown that there is indeed a lack of clarity as to precisely when it is legal for polls to be called and it has given rise to real problems of uncertainty for parish clerks. It is they who must decide if a specific poll is a legitimate use of what are, after all, public funds provided by their community council's taxpayers.

We are clear about two things. First, that parish polls can be a legitimate and effective way in which local people can rightly have a say about local issues which are vital to their communities and day-to-day lives. We want to see stronger democratic local governance, and parish polls can be part of that.

Secondly, we are equally clear that it is an abuse for pressure groups to seek to further their aims at public expense, and some of the attempts to try to use parish polls do not seem to be anything else than such an attempt.

We are therefore sympathetic to any measures which would strengthen the parish poll provisions and render them less susceptible to misuse. Indeed, given the recent events, we have received a number of representations on behalf of town and parish councils asking us to do just that. We have been asked to consider raising the threshold in order to prevent abuse of the current rules. We have been asked about the kind of questions which parish polls can be used to decide.

What has not been made clear to us is what any higher threshold should be. Nor is there clear consensus about what questions a parish poll should be able to cover. So while the principles of how we should approach parish polls are clear, the details of how to achieve them are not. However, my noble friend's amendment puts forward what the House may consider to be a sensible view of the level of support that should be received.

For those reasons, we cannot accept the particular suggestions that my noble friend makes tonight. But I can say that as the Government take forward their rural policies we will examine and consult widely on how the important parish polls provisions should be reformed so as on the one hand to provide certainty and prevent abuse and on the other to allow local people to have a real say about local issues which really matter.

We believe that there should be robust and effective parish poll provisions. The whole House will be grateful to my noble friend for having raised the matter tonight.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, I sense that that is the best offer I shall have tonight. I accept it with gratitude and beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule 20 [Penalties]: [Amendment No. 265 not moved.]

Clause 153 [Orders and regulations]:

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish moved Amendment No. 266: Page 116, line 2, leave out ("or 159(2)").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 266 I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 267 and 269. Amendment No. 269 contains an error; the second line should read "section 159(5)".

In case your Lordships thought that during the past hour I had taken a vow of silence, I feel that I should make this final contribution to the Report stage. The amendment relates to the commencement orders bringing into force the various parts of the Bill. As presently drafted, there is no provision for parliamentary scrutiny of such orders. As the Minister has admitted, it is a distinct possibility that there will be a general election less than 12 months after the provisions of the Bill relating to expenditure limits come into force. In such a case, I think that it is the Government's intention to use the powers in Clause 159(5) to alter the political parties' expenditure limits when they make the commencement order so that the limits are reduced to take account of the shorter period between the commencement of Part V and the day of the poll.

I have no objection to that in principle. However, I am concerned that any reduced limit should be weighted to take into account that the vast majority of parties' expenditure takes place in the few weeks immediately prior to a general election. In other words, I do not want £20 million to be divided into 12 and the necessary months given the one-twelfth. I should probably have fair agreement on that.

I believe that it is the Government's intention after Royal Assent to seek the views of political parties on the appropriate level of the reduced expenditure. However, the reduced expenditure limits are important. At present, there is no mechanism in the Bill for Parliament to discuss them after they have been agreed. My amendment would provide that a commencement order which varies the election expenditure limits would be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. It is important that Parliament should scrutinise such a key change and it is hoped that there will be no complaints about that. I beg to move.

Lord Bach

My Lords, as the noble Lord has explained, the effect of his amendments would be to apply the affirmative resolution procedure to any commencement order containing transitional provisions of the type envisaged by Clause 159(5). The purpose is to enable a commencement order to specify lower limits for campaign and controlled expenditure in the event that Parts V and VI are brought into force less than 365 days in advance of the next election. Like the noble Lord, I leave it to others to speculate as to the timing of the next election and, consequently, whether lower limits will be needed.

By convention, commencement orders are not subject to any parliamentary procedure. A commencement order simply gives effect to legislation that Parliament has already fully debated and approved. Once a Bill has been enacted Ministers are expected to get on with its implementation. We believe that it would be a constitutional absurdity to provide for the possibility that the implementation of an Act of Parliament could be delayed or frustrated by the operation of the affirmative resolution procedure.

Clause 15915) does not justify a different approach in this case. It contains an entirely understandable and, in our view, routine transitional provision. We shall naturally want to consult the political parties on the limits to be applied to any truncated campaign period; indeed, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has already undertaken to do so. But the general approach is already set out in the Bill and we see no reason to submit the relevant commencement order to further parliamentary scrutiny. We would expect some back-end loading of the limits as the expectation must be that the majority of a party's expenditure will be incurred in the final few weeks of an election campaign. I should like to be able to persuade the noble Lord that there is nothing unusual about the commencement arrangements for this Bill, and I invite him to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Speaking as a member of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee, it is perfectly correct that in principle commencement orders are not subject to parliamentary scrutiny, but I have never seen a commencement order which contains authority to make transitional provisions. Orders that contain powers to make transitional provisions are usually subject to the negative, not affirmative, resolution procedure.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, makes the point clearer than I did. I fully accept that normally these order-making powers do not come before Parliament, and I do not try to change that situation. However, this is unusual in that at some stage in the next month or two a decision will be taken to change the terms of the provision and the £20 million limit. I am grateful for confirmation of the position of the Home Secretary and the added confirmation that back-end loading is understood. However, I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, makes a valid point.

Lord Bach

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, expresses a view with his usual force. However, the committee of which he is a member has approved the order-making power in this case, which we believe is sufficient. If the committee had not given its approval we would have had to think again.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I do not know whether the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee considered it in the light of the fact that it was likely to change the £20 million limit quite dramatically, but we cannot continue that debate at Report stage. I am grateful for the two points that the noble Lord has put on record. I still regard it as a pity. Perhaps the negative resolution procedure would have been a better approach. I have made my point and the Minister has responded. I just hope that the parties can reach agreement; if not, we may find ourselves in an unhappy position. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 267 not moved.]

Lord Bach moved Amendment No. 268: Page 116, line 5, at end insert— ("() section 17(1),").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 269 not moved.]

Lord Bach moved Amendment No. 270: Page 116, line 28, at end insert— ("() Nothing in this Act shall be read as affecting the generality of subsection (5) (including that subsection as applied by section 18(6)).").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

10 p.m.

Schedule 21 [Minor and consequential amendments]:

Lord Bach moved Amendment No. 271: Page 223, line 16, at end insert— (" . In section 14(8) of that Act (changes that may be recommended), for "section 13(1) above" substitute "section 13(1A) above".").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 271, I shall speak to Amendment No. 272. Amendment No. 271 is a minor drafting amendment to new Section 14(8) of the Local Government Act 1992 which was inserted by the Local Government Act 2000. In referring to Section 13(1) of the 1992 Act, new Section 14(8) omitted to take account of the changes made to Section 13 of the 1992 Act by the Bill.

Amendment No. 272 has more substance. Noble Lords will recall that Part II of the Local Government Act 2000 makes provision for new forms of local government, including directly elected mayors. Sections 44 and 45 of the 2000 Act confer regulation-making powers on the Secretary of State so that detailed provision may be made for the conduct of elections and referendums in respect of directly elected mayors. We have already provided in Clauses 6 and 7 of the Bill for the electoral commission to be closely involved whenever delegated powers are exercised in respect of parliamentary and other elections. The requirement to consult the commission on such matters should extend to elections and referendums held under Part II of the Local Government Act 2000.

Amendment No. 272 amends Sections 44 and 45 of that Act to this end. Noble Lords will note that the procedure for consulting the commission on the wording of a referendum question and on setting the spending limits in a referendum mirror the approach we have taken in respect of referendums conducted under Part VII of the Bill. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Bach moved Amendment No. 272: Page 225, line 26, at end insert—

("Local Government Act 2000 (c.22)

.—(1) The Local Government Act 2000 is amended as follows.

(2) In section 44 (conduct of elections of elected mayors or elected executive members), after subsection (3) insert—

"(3A) Before making any regulations under this section, the Secretary of State shall consult the Electoral Commission.

(3B) In addition, the power of the Secretary of State to make regulations under this section so far as relating to matters mentioned in subsection (2)(c) shall be exercisable only on, and in accordance with, a recommendation of the Electoral Commission, except where the Secretary of State considers that it is expedient to exercise that power in consequence of changes in the value of money.".

(3) In section 45 (conduct of referendums under the Act), after subsection (8) insert—

"(8A) Before making any regulations under this section, the Secretary of State shall consult the Electoral Commission, but this subsection does not apply to—

  1. (a) provisions which specify the wording of the question to be asked in a referendum, or
  2. (b) provisions for matters mentioned in subsection (8)(c).

(8B) No regulations which specify the wording of the question to be asked in a referendum may be made under subsection (5) unless—

  1. (a) before laying a draft of the regulations before Parliament in accordance with section 105(6), the Secretary of State consulted the Electoral Commission as to the intelligibility of that question, and
  2. (b) when so laying the draft, the Secretary of State also laid before each House a report stating any views as to the intelligibility of that question which were expressed by the Electoral Commission in response to that consultation.

(8C) Where any such regulations specify not only the question to be asked in a referendum but also any statement which is to precede that question on the ballot paper at the referendum, any reference in subsection (8B) to the intelligibility of that question is to be read as a reference to the intelligibility of that question and that statement taken together.

(8D) No regulations which make provision for the matters mentioned in subsection (8)(c) may be made under subsection (5) unless—

  1. (a) before laying a draft of the regulations before Parliament in accordance with section 105(6), the Secretary of State sought. and had regard to, the views of the Electoral Commission as to the provision to be made by the regulations as to those matters, and
  2. (b) where the draft regulations laid before Parliament made provision as to those matters otherwise than in accordance with the views of the Electoral Commission, the Secretary of State, when so laying the draft, also laid before each House a statement of his reasons for departing from the views of the Commission.".

(4) In section 45(9), after "(8)" insert "to (8C)".").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Schedule 22 [Repeals]:

Lord Bach moved Amendment No. 273: Page 226, line 41, column 3, at end insert— ("Section 4(2).")

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 157 [General interpretation]:

Lord Bach moved Amendments Nos. 274 and 275: Page 117, line 28, at end insert— (""exempt trust donation" has the meaning given by section (Interpretation: exempt trust donations);"). Page 118, line 1, at end insert (", and "modify" shall be construed accordingly;").

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Clause 158 [Interpretation: donations]:

Lord Bassam of Brighton moved Amendment No. 276: Page 119, line 20, at end insert— ("(6) For the purposes of this Act it is immaterial whether a donation received by a registered party or a person of any other description is so received in the United Kingdom or elsewhere.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I can be brief. The amendment adds a new subsection (6) to the interpretation clause relating to donations. The new subsection provides that for the purposes of the Bill it is immaterial whether a donation received by a registered party or other regulated donee is received in the United Kingdom or elsewhere. As a result of this provision, a registered party could not escape the provisions of Part IV by arranging for a donation to be paid into a foreign bank account. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Bach moved Amendment No. 277: After Clause 158, insert the following new clause—