HL Deb 27 January 2005 vol 668 cc1440-3

2.17 p.m.

Lord Rooker rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 9 December 2004 be approved. [3rd Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this order is intended to increase the maximum limits of expenditure of candidates standing at ward elections and elections by liverymen in common hall in the City of London—that is, the Corporation of London. The order applies only to that; it does not apply to what we normally understand as local government.

The current limits for such City of London elections are laid down in the Representation of the People Act 1983, and they were last changed in 1997. Clearly everyone will be aware that the value of money has changed a little since that time. We have not had the rampant inflation suffered by, and under, previous Labour and Tory governments—let us make no bones about that.

Under Section 197(3) of the Representation of the People Act 1983, the relevant Secretary of State—in this case, the Deputy Prime Minister—has power to vary the maximum limits of such election expenses where, in his view, there has been a change in the value of money since the last occasion on which such limits were set. It is clear to the Deputy Prime Minister that there has been a change in the value of money since the limits were last set almost eight years ago, as evidenced by changes to the GDP deflator figures, which show an increase of 21.38 per cent.

To reflect that change in the value of money, the Government are proposing that the maximum limits for ward elections are increased from £219.043 per elector to £266.052 per elector and, for elections by liverymen in common hall, that the limits are increased from 23.3 pence per elector to 28.3 pence per elector. The draft order, when approved, would give effect to the Government's proposal.

I shall say a brief word on why the City is treated differently. The legislation makes provision for elections in the City of London which is different from that for other local authority elections. That is set out in Sections 191 to 198 of the 1983 Act. In relation to election expenses for candidates in local government elections and parliamentary elections, the Secretary of State has powers to make an order either to take into account a change in the value of money or to give effect to a recommendation from the Electoral Commission. The commission has more options in that it may recommend an increase or a decrease that is below or above the change in the value of money; or no change at all.

The Government have asked the Electoral Commission for its view on what the maximum limits should be for local government and parliamentary elections with a view to bringing forward another order in time for all this year's elections. The commission published its recommendation on 14 January. The Government are grateful to the commission for the work it has done and we are considering very carefully the recommendations it has made.

However, there are no powers in legislation for the Government to seek or to give effect to a recommendation from the Electoral Commission for the City of London. To be honest, it slipped through the net; otherwise, it would be wrapped up with everything else. That is the reason why we require this special order. I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 9 December 2004 be approved[3rd Report from the Joint Committee] —(Lord Rooker.)

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, this is much the most interesting of the three orders before the House today because it is unusual. It is not every day that one has the opportunity to discuss the City of London's affairs, even though it is to raise election expenses—twopence is twopence.

The order is welcome. As the noble Lord has said, this is the first uprating since 1997 and the City Corporation has made it known that it would prefer successive adjustments, which these days we must assume to be upwards, to take place at four yearly intervals, particularly as the electoral period for ward elections to the Common Council will, from this year, be for four years. I believe that in the past they have been annual.

The uprating is in line with the change in the value of money, as the Minister has pointed out. There is no quarrel to that approach from anyone. However, I would just add a comment about the suggestion, which arose from the consultation, that the City should be aligned with local authorities generally, and that proposals for future upratings should be included as part of the recommendations made by the Electoral Commission in respect of local authority elections.

It is true that within the City of London, the Common Council exercises the functions of a local authority. The City Corporation is a composite organisation, which is reflected in the range of activities its members carry out. The existing legislation makes a distinction between local government elections and elections in the City, no doubt reflecting the distinctive nature of the administration in the City. Many of the City's electoral arrangements are also governed by private Acts. I think the initial inspections were brought about by a ballot Act in 1887, although I may be wrong about the date. It will be necessary to take careful account of these factors in deciding whether the City fits into a more generalised provision governing local authorities. Apart from those views from the City, I confirm that the order has our support.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

My Lords, we on these Benches also support the order. I have one question for the Minister. It appears that a wait of something like eight years to uprate is quite significant. If one of my noble friends who understands more about the economy than I do were here, no doubt he would be able to say exactly what the uprating was and what the inflation rate has been since then. I do not know. Nevertheless, it seems to me that eight years is quite a long wait and it seems rather odd that it is entirely up to the Secretary of State to decide whether he believes there has been enough of a cost-of-living increase. Perhaps there might be some merit in considering an automatic four-yearly upgrade.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I fully accept the point. Eight years is probably an unacceptable time to wait. I asked why on earth I am using parliamentary time to bring forward an order relating to this important point, although, in the scale of things, it is not that supreme. As I have said, it is 21 per cent over eight years, which shows the stability of the economy. Over the eight years we have had an inflation rate that at one time occurred in one year when I was in the other place. So there has been a big success in dealing with the economy.

The fact is that this matter slipped through the net. In some future local government legislation it should be possible to ensure that the City is treated fairly with others, so that there is more flexibility to do this as and when required. The City of London is a unique institution. As I have made clear, it is not like normal local government—I do not say that in any critical way. Surely, when dealing with maximum election expenses, as we do for everyone else—Members of Parliament, county councillors and district councillors—the City should be part of the normal process which we are all used to. I see nothing peculiar about that. Those in the City should not have to wait eight years and they should not have uncertainty about the issue either.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 2.25 to 2.50 p.m.]