HL Deb 06 December 2001 vol 629 cc1019-22

8.22 p.m.

Lord Fillkin rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 14th November be approved [10th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, during the debates on the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, the Government made it clear that they would confer responsibility for local government electoral arrangements—the boundaries of electoral areas and the number of councillors—on the Electoral Commission. This order achieves that by transferring all the current functions of the Local Government Commission to the Electoral Commission and by giving to it the Secretary of State's powers to implement recommendations relating to electoral arrangements.

Transferring these functions to the Electoral Commission is part of our reform and modernisation of the democratic framework of this country and will contribute to strengthening public trust and confidence in electoral arrangements by taking decisions on such issues as the numbers and boundaries of electoral divisions and the number of councillors entirely out of the political arena.

The current functions of the Local Government Commission also include making recommendations about administrative boundaries and structure. We are also transferring these functions, along with the Local Government Commission's staff and assets. The House will wish to note, however, that we have put in place arrangements that recognise the Electoral Commission's independence by removing the Secretary of State's powers of direction. Instead, the order allows the Secretary of State to request the Electoral Commission to make recommendations on boundary and structure issues. It will remain the Secretary of State's responsibility to implement such changes, as now, through orders subject to parliamentary approval.

In conclusion, the order will mark another step in our reform of the electoral and democratic machinery in this country, bringing greater transparency and accountability to the review of electoral arrangements. I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 14th November be approved [10th Report from the Joint Committee].(Lord Filkin.)

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, while there is no opposition from these Benches to the order, I should like to ask the Minister a couple of questions in relation to the cost of the new arrangements.

Have the savings which are likely to be derived as a result of the proposed merger of the Local Government Commission and the Parliamentary Boundary Commission been identified? If so, what are they?

Section 13 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 gives the commission powers to promote public awareness of the institutions of the European Union. It is a curious section which has the potential to be very costly if either the Government or the commission itself require to take up the whole scale of publicity campaigns, of whatever nature, to do with European institutions.

In the light of that and my previous question, can the Minister give the budget which has been agreed as being appropriate for the first year of the Electoral Commission? Can he also indicate what cost savings are likely to arise as a result of the subsequent merger of the two commissions under one roof? I say "under one roof" advisedly because I hope that they will be brought together physically as well as metaphorically. Will the Minister confirm that the budget responsibilities for the commission will be borne by the Speaker's Committee? Can he give details of the budget which that committee has agreed for the year 2002–03?

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, we support the order. Indeed, we warmly welcome it. I am not sure whether I should declare an interest as a member of the London Assembly, which falls within the order, but, as I am a London-wide member—and, happily, I do not think a change of boundary for the whole of London is in prospect—perhaps it is only a very small interest.

We are aware that turn-out is of particular concern to the Electoral Commission. No doubt that will be central to its views on appropriate boundaries. At London borough level, I used to represent a ward which included parts of three different communities. That led to enormous confusion, not least as to why the boundary of the ward was in one case a railway and in the others went down the middle of residential roads. There seems to be little logic in people living in one polling district and identifying with not only a different community but with a different borough. Artificial boundaries do not promote identity with an electoral area. I am sure that the Electoral Commission will have this very much in mind.

We support, too, the integration of boundary decisions at all levels to help reduce confusion. It is not too clear why, for instance, you might be voting in a ward in a part of one parliamentary constituency when you identify with and live in what you regard as a neighbouring borough.

I was a little confused by a comment made by the Minister in another place in the Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation. He said: Those decisions will be placed squarely in the hands of an independent commission"— and then rather hurriedly said, which is not to say that in the past decisions have been made other than on the basis of objective recommendations by independent people". If the noble Lord has anything to add to that to confirm the commission's complete independence and transparency, we shall be glad to hear it. We support the order.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, before the Minister rises to reply, may I do what I should have done and declare an interest as a member of a local authority? It is becoming very boring, but I believe that I should keep saying it.

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I shall address, first, the two questions of the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. This issue was considered in some detail in the Standing Committee in another place. It flows from old thinking about the nature of the Electoral Commission and the nature of the Local Government Commission itself. The Electoral Commission, which, under this order, is taking over the functions of the Local Government Commission, will no longer be the creature of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. It is outwith his control and his power. He will no longer have any responsibility for its budget. It operates completely independently from him, and it reaches its conclusions on electoral arrangements without in any way going near him.

For those reasons, the budget for the Electoral Commission, including the budgets necessary to support the work of the Local Government Commission, which is being transferred into it, cannot be part of the responsibility of the Secretary of State for fairly obvious reasons, in that he must have no influence over it. That is why, if I understand it correctly, the original 2000 Act placed the responsibility for the budget firmly on the Speaker's Committee. As I understand it, as yet, the Electoral Commission has not submitted its budget to the Speaker's Committee. I should expect that it would do so—and this is speculation—shortly after the order is passed so that it can put a composite budget for 2002 before the Speaker's Committee. It is then that we shall know the proposed budget for the commission for 2002–03.

Clearly, it is not a rubber stamp. The Speaker's Committee must then inspect the budget, and has powers to change or vary it as it thinks appropriate before it is affirmed in either its original or its modified form. Therefore, it is not a matter of truculence on my part. It is not possible for me—nor would it be right even if knew what was being proposed—for that to be done. It is a matter for the Speaker's Committee.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked about the turnout in local government elections. I share her view that these are strong concerns of the Electoral Commission. We have already seen its report on the general election, which many noble Lords have read with some interest. I very much hope that we shall see a similar focus on what the commission can do, along with many others, to raise turnout in local government elections. I also share the noble Baroness's view that seeking to make electoral arrangements reflect natural communities, so far as one can grasp such slippery concepts, is highly desirable—as I believe the commission is charged. It is not meant merely to take an arithmetic approach, but to look at the communities as well.

It was perhaps a teasing question as to whether my honourable friend in another place had implied that the independence of the commission should not be seen to reflect on past political decisions in these matters. I am sure that he was probably referring to the fact that, while all politicians, one trusts, have always acted honourably in these matters, the issue is trying to convince the public that there is no trace of political interference. That is why there is such a distance in terms of the responsibilities and the budget itself.

I trust that my remarks have addressed satisfactorily the questions raised. I trust also that there will be a continuation of cross-party support for what we believe to be a strengthening of decisions on electoral arrangements and that the Electoral Commission will move forward with power and skill in addressing these difficult roles. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.