HL Deb 12 November 2001 vol 628 cc367-9

3.1 p.m.

Baroness Hanham

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in view of the low turnout and votes for elected mayors in the recent referendums, they propose to test public opinion on the demand for regional assemblies.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, we are committed to testing public opinion through referendums before setting up elected regional assemblies. No region will have an assembly unless it votes for one.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. In view of the fact that the average turnout for the election of mayors was just 28 per cent, and in several cases as low as 10 per cent, and that the proposition for an elected mayor was successful in only a few local authorities, does the Minister believe that these experiments in local democracy are justified and that they will be any more successful or popular if extended to referendums on the public's reaction to regional assemblies?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I believe that the experiments in other forms of local democracy are justified. In certain cases the local leadership provided by a mayor can be of great importance. I do not believe anyone doubts that the leadership provided by Mayor Giuliani in New York has impressed the whole world. As to elected regional assemblies, we have made it clear that there will not be such bodies unless there is support for them in referendums beforehand. We need to identify what the threshold should be before such a referendum takes place. There are indications from public opinion that significant areas of the country would value an elected regional assembly. There have been low turnouts in quite a number of local government elections recently, as the noble Baroness is aware. I do not believe that she would suggest that that means we get rid of local government—far from it. We must try to inject greater interest in it.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, I am glad to hear the Minister's comment on local government. Is he aware that last week the Minister for Local Government, when commenting on low turnout, suggested that there should be mechanical measures, such as electronic voting, to encourage a higher turnout? Can the noble and learned Lord assure the House that this is not the limit of the Government's ambition? Does he agree that to encourage a higher turnout electors need to believe that they have a real say in what government will do at any level and that they will be electing politicians whom they can trust?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, there is most certainly a place for making it easier for people to vote. As my right honourable friend in another place said, the form of voting is exactly that which would have confronted Gladstone when he sought to vote. There is nothing wrong with trying to make voting easier and more accessible, but that should not be the end of it. We should look at ways of developing government that is more representative and closer to the people—mayors are one example—and let the people decide in relation to that, but we must also root local government in its role as local leaders.

Lord Howe of Aberavon

My Lords, will the Minister ensure that when the Government come to consider the desirability of elected assemblies they remember the wisdom of John Major's observation that if the answer to the question is more politicians one is asking the wrong question?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, surely that is a matter for the regions to decide. For example, the North East or the North West can decide whether it wants a regional assembly which brings certain responsibilities closer to the people.

Lord Lipsey

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that there is a danger of electoral fatigue with people much keener on having elections and referendums than voting in them? Does he agree, therefore, that in these areas there is a case for supplementing referendums with other forms of test, such as citizens' juries, properly conducted opinion polls, and so on?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, there is a role for those in relation to the development of policy. However, as to whether there should be an elected regional assembly, or what form of local government should apply in a particular area, I do not believe that there is any alternative to referendums.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what assessment the Government have made of the additional expenditure on a regional assembly and its likely cost to the average council tax payer? Can the noble and learned Lord also say whether he believes there is a need for both district and county councils following regional assemblies, and, if not, which one he would scrap?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I do not know the precise estimate of cost in relation to expenditure on a regional assembly. I shall write to the noble Viscount. As to whether there should be two-tier authorities, in some cases it is not right that there should be. That is something which needs to be looked at particularly in the context of where there is a regional assembly. If one has a regional assembly and two other tiers, that looks to be too many. As to which is the right one to remove, it is not for me to say at this stage.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, can the Minister state the lowest percentage that would be acceptable and considered a fair test in a referendum?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I cannot say what the figure would be, but it is right that people should be given the opportunity to vote. If there is a close vote and a low turnout, that is something that the Government must consider at a particular time. We must remember that turnout is going down at every level—in general elections, local elections and referendums—and simply to point out that fact is not an adequate response. We need to think of ways to ensure that more people feel engaged in the political process.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes

My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that whatever new system the Government may envisage to encourage voters to vote will not involve the use of pregnant chads?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I can give an assurance that pregnant chads are not at the forefront of our plans.