§ (".—(1) A resolution of a local authority is required in order for the authority to operate alternative arrangements.
§ (2) Subsection (2) of section 20 is to apply for the purposes of this section as it applies for the purposes of that section.
§ (3) A local authority which pass a resolution under this section to operate alternative arrangements may not at any subsequent time cease to operate those arrangements unless, by virtue of any provision made under subsection (5) or section 22, 23 or (Power to require referendum), the authority operate executive arrangements in place of those arrangements.
§ (4) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision for or in connection with enabling a local authority which is operating alternative arrangements to alter those arrangements in such ways as may be permitted by the regulations.
§ (5) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision for or in connection with enabling a local authority which is operating alternative arrangements to operate executive arrangements in place of the alternative arrangements.
§ (6) The provision which may be made by virtue of subsection (5) includes provision which applies or reproduces (with or without modifications) any provisions of section 18, (Proposals not requiring referendum), 19 or 20.
§ (7) Nothing in subsection (6) affects the generality of the power under subsection (5) ").
§ [Amendment No. 198A, as an amendment to Amendment No. 198, not moved.]
§ On Question, Amendment No. 198 agreed to.144
§ Clause 22 [Referendum following petition]:
Lord Whitty moved Amendment No. 199:
Page 12, line 11, at end insert ("for or in connection with").
§ The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 199, I shall speak also to the amendments grouped with it.
§ Amendments Nos. 199 to 217 make a number of changes to Clause 22, which deals with petitions for referendums. Most of these are minor drafting amendments. Amendments Nos. 200, 206, 216 and 217 alter the way the provisions work, but not their overall effect.
§ The main reason for changing these provisions is because the original drafting did not resolve the issue of the basis on which the figure for the percentage of local electors would be calculated in respect of any particular petition. This could lead to problems, particularly where the number of electors changes over the period during which a petition is collected. These amendments therefore extend slightly the scope of the regulation-making power to enable this to be much more precise.
§ The proposed Local Government (Constitutions) (Petitions and Referendums) Regulations and Chapter 3 of the draft guidance illustrate how we are proposing to use this power. In particular—contrary to recent reports in the press—the Government do not intend to set the threshold for a petition at any level lower than 5 per cent of the local electorate.
§ Amendment No. 216 introduces a new provision which would allow the Secretary of State to take action in default where a local authority fails to act on a petition. This is necessary to ensure that in the event of a local authority ignoring a bona fide petition, the petitioners do not have to resort to the courts to force the local authority into action. A similar provision is made in Clause 23 by Amendment No. 233. Amendments Nos. 230 to 232 and 234 are minor drafting amendments.
§ Amendment No. 236 introduces a new power which will enable the Secretary of State to require all local authorities, or all authorities of a particular description, to hold a referendum on a particular form of executive. The Government believe that it might be appropriate for local people in a number of council areas to be able, in a co-ordinated way, to express through referendums their support for new executive arrangements for their council. This new power is necessary should the Government wish to give effect to such a policy. But it will remain a choice for local people whether or not they wish to support a particular form of executive proposed in this way. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Hamwee
I have tabled a number of amendments as amendments to government amendments. Going at them backwards— because why not—Amendment No. 236A seeks to include a reference to the Electoral Commission. I hope that the Minister can again assure the Committee that the Government, to use his words, "have the matter in hand".
145 Amendments Nos. 206A and 206B are amendments to the Minister's amendments in regard to the calculation of what is required for a petition. I understand the difficulties that the Government have now realised there will be in calculating percentages; in working out the date on which the electoral register will apply; and how to set about a fair approach to the matter. None the less, I am concerned about the provision for a minimum number rather than for a percentage. A percentage of a local authority's electorate will be different from the numerical answer, obviously depending on the size of the electorate. I am unclear as to how the fairness and equality of the Government's approach in setting a minimum number for each local authority's area can be assessed. Will the Government publish a number for each area? If so, how will it be possible to compare number by number? Does it mean that there will be different percentages for each area?
My first amendment, Amendment No. 206A, seeks to deal with the issue of percentages rather than numbers; and my second amendment, Amendment No. 206B, suggests that there should be a standard minimum; otherwise, if different numbers apply in different local authority areas, there could very easily be justified allegations of partial or preferential treatment of particular authorities.
In regard to Amendments Nos. 199 and 200, I regret that I did not quite hear what the Minister said about the 5 per cent threshold and the comments that had been made in the press. It seems to me that these amendments will mean that there will be no statutory minimum. While 5 per cent may not be the right figure, I confess to a concern that there is no percentage mentioned on the face of the Bill as a threshold for such a petition. It is an important matter which should be dealt with on the face of the Bill.
§ 7.15 p.m.
Lord Dixon Smith
I have tabled Amendments Nos. 201, 218 and 223 in this group. Amendments Nos. 201 and 223 seek to permit referendums on whether to cease to operate executive arrangements where a community decided that what was going on was not working in its best interests. One might consider that this goes against the spirit of the Bill, but the spirit of the Bill is to dictate that a particular conclusion should be the outcome. I do not think that that is reasonable; I think that communities ought to be able to decide what their administrative arrangements should be. That is my interpretation of the European Charter of Local Self Government. We have therefore tabled these two amendments to support that case.
Amendment No. 218 is somewhat different. It is tabled as an amendment to government Amendment No. 217. The Bill as originally drafted required 5 per cent of the electorate to make a petition in order to force a change in the system if a local community was not satisfied with either its executive arrangements or any other arrangements and wanted to bring about a 146 change to something different—particularly if it was moving from what one might call a cabinet style of local government management to an elected mayor style of local government management. If we were in a situation down the road where a cabinet style had been operating and the community decided that it wanted to have an elected mayor, the Bill stated in its original form that 5 per cent of the electorate would be required.
Amendment No. 217 changes that very fundamentally. It states that the number required may be determined by regulation and shall not exceed 5 per cent. I echo the voice of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that that causes some concern. Not exceeding 5 per cent gives the Minister discretion. I trust his discretion, but I do not trust it all the way down to zero or, shall we say, 1 per cent. My amendment seeks to provide that, while 5 per cent will be the maximum, the minimum may not go below 3 per cent. I do not think that that is unreasonable. A little while ago we had a discussion on floors. It may be that the Minister will repeat his view that the idea of floors is not valid in this case. I think it is valid and that many of the arguments already used today are appropriate.
§ Baroness Hanham
Amendment No. 219 seeks to do very much what the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, and the amendments of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, seek to do—that is, to stop the Minister's powers under Clause 22(5), which states:The Secretary of State may by regulations amend subsection (1)(a)".As has clearly been said, under the government amendments the figure could go down to as low as 1 per cent if the Minister so wished. In some local authorities that would mean that very few people would be required to sign a petition to force a referendum.
A maximum and a minimum of five would be about right. My noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith suggests three. However, we must include a realistic minimum figure, bearing in mind that electorates vary substantially, from a borough of 120,000 to a county council of far more than that. My amendment seeks to support those already tabled and to limit the powers of the Secretary of State to reduce the figure to one that becomes meaningful in that too few people can put forward for a petition.
§ Lord Filkin
One recognises that the provision for a referendum in order to show public support before a substantial change is made to the system of elected mayors is right. That is a serious test and there must be clear public consent before we change our current system of political governance.
However, one does not want the test to be so severe that it is never possible to make change and innovation. One is aware of a dilemma because most local authorities are substantially opposed to the idea of elected mayors whereas the public, surprisingly by a majority of two to one, are strongly interested in the 147 idea. That does not automatically prove one side right and the other wrong, but it demonstrates a willingness on the part of the public to experiment.
When we are in a mode of experimentation, we should not put a specific number on to the face of the Bill. No one knows for certain how the debate will play out in practice. There may be cases for going above or below 5 per cent, although I note that the Government do not intend to go below that threshold. Nevertheless, we may find in five years' time that the debate has substantially changed and that a good case made one way or the other for making a variation commands support across the House.
Finally, I believe that one should approach the Government's new idea for co-ordinated referendums with an open and positive mind. The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, spoke about low turn-outs in such referendums. One way of ensuring a substantial or increased turn-out would be to have a national debate about whether certain areas of England wish to move towards elected mayors. Were such a co-ordinated referendum to take place, each area would still decide for itself whether it wanted change. But the fact that, say, most major cities had the debate simultaneously would guarantee substantial national attention and one hopes informed debate. That would strengthen the likelihood of a high turn-out.
§ Lord Whitty
I note my noble friend's recommendations in relation to the timing of the referendums, but that is not a matter for this Bill. In regard to the 5 per cent threshold, I indicated that we would not put a non-5 per cent figure on the face of the Bill. However, in response to the report of the Joint Committee the Government undertook to keep the position of thresholds under review. Since tabling our amendment, it has become clear that it does not deliver what we said in response to the Joint Committee in that it no longer indicates the flexibility that we indicated we wanted so that the threshold could be changed above or below the 5 per cent.
The amendment deals with a number of issues, but it does not deal with that issue. Therefore, with the indulgence of the Committee, we may need to return to that aspect and bring forward another minor amendment at the Report stage which includes the additional flexibility both for the Secretary of State in England and for the National Assembly in Wales. I hope that the Committee will recognise that this is not quite the end of the story in terms of the amendments.
As regards other amendments, I am afraid that we cannot accept Amendments Nos. 201 and 223 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith. We would not accept that it should be possible for local people to force a referendum to abandon arrangements with an elected mayor through a petition. Nor do we believe that the Secretary of State should have the power to do so. In either situation, local people will relatively recently twice have approved the arrangements for an elected mayor: first, through arrangements themselves for a referendum and, secondly, through the mayor's own mandate for his or her election. That does not mean that local people cannot petition the council for 148 such a referendum, but it would be up to the local authority to decide whether it acted on the referendum in those circumstances. I would urge the noble Lord to withdraw those two amendments.
In relation to Amendments Nos. 206A and 206B tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, I can reassure the Committee that the Government have no intention of setting a petitions threshold at any given time that differs between authority to authority. I understand that to be the main intention behind the amendment, but we do not believe that it achieves that. However, we shall examine it because that is our intention, too.
Despite arguments that have been made, we do not believe it sensible to define a petition threshold by way of an absolute number. The draft regulations and guidance we published make clear that we propose a percentage threshold. Currently we are thinking of starting at the 5 per cent figure, but with the flexibility to which I have referred.
The flexibility which Amendment No. 206A seeks to remove is necessary. For example, after experience of the petitioning process it may become apparent that in addition to a universal threshold of, say, 5 per cent there should also be a requirement for a minimum number of signatures on a petition from each ward or each part of, say, a shire county. We believe that the noble Baroness's amendment might restrict the enabling power in a way that would preclude us from doing that and I cannot accept that.
I regret that I must also oppose Amendments Nos. 218 and 219 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith. We believe that there needs to be some flexibility. Opinion polls have repeatedly shown that the vast majority of local people favour arrangements for an elected mayor but that most councils do not. If following consultation councils implement arrangements which do not reflect public opinion, there needs to be some way for local people to force their hand. That is where the petitioning process comes in.
As regards Amendment No. 236A, I can reassure the noble Baroness that we intend to consult the electoral commission, once it is in place, on the regulations. However, as I indicated earlier, we expect to proceed with moves by local authorities in the direction of the new structures before the likely date of the commencement of the commission. We therefore need these powers in this form without requirement to revert to the commission.
I hope that that explains why, with regret, I cannot take on board any of the Opposition amendments. I commend my amendment to the Committee.
§ Baroness Hamwee
In connection with the figure of 5 per cent and the Government's desire to achieve flexibility, the Minister recognised that his amendment does not quite achieve that. I shall make my point in the least adversarial way that I can perhaps other than not making it at all. There is a substantial number of government amendments to the Bill and I invite the 149 Minister to withdraw his amendment so that we can see it in its final form at the next stage rather than doing half a job.
§ Lord Dixon-Smith
What the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, says merits serious consideration. This is a quite complicated Bill. We have had words across the table, so to speak, about both the volume of amendments and the detail of those amendments. I have no doubt that there will be many occasions on many amendments when we shall have to return to that matter. If the Minister could withdraw the existing amendment and return with a better one in the future, it would be most helpful to all of us.
§ 7.30 p.m.
§ Lord Whitty
Members of the Committee will know that I am usually accommodating in that respect. However, we are talking about a whole raft of provisions relating to the petitioning procedure and the way that it triggers a referendum in only one small respect which relates to future flexibility. I have explained clearly what such a further amendment would do. Therefore, it will come as no surprise at Report stage if I table an amendment to do precisely that. It would not be sensible to withdraw the other provisions on the understanding that I should return with what, in textual terms, would be a relatively minor amendment when I have spelt out already what that amendment would provide. It would need to do so in a form applicable to the National Assembly for Wales, which has raised some concerns on the matter, as well as the Secretary of State for England. The form of the amendment will reflect that accordingly. Apart from that minor complication, everything else before the Committee will stand. I shall therefore resist the request to withdraw at this stage.
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.
§ The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Gardner of Parkes)
In calling Amendment No. 200, I must say that if it is agreed to, I cannot call Amendment No. 201.
Lord Whitty moved Amendment No. 200:
Page 12, leave out lines 13 to 19 and insert ("which complies with the provisions of the regulations to hold a referendum. in such circumstances as may be prescribed in the regulations, on whether the authority should operate executive arrangements involving a form of executive for which a referendum is required.").
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.
§ [Amendment No. 201 not moved.]
Lord Whitty moved Amendments Nos. 202 to 205:
Page 12, line 21, leave out (", in particular,").
Page 12. line 21, leave out ("as to").
Page 12, line 22. at beginning insert ("as to").
Page 12, line 22, leave out ("that a petition is to take") and insert ("and content of petitions (including provision for petitions in electronic form)").
§ On Question, amendments agreed to.150
Lord Whitty moved Amendment No. 206:
Page 12, line 22, at end insert—
- ("(aa) as to the minimum number of local government electors for a local authority's area who must support any petition presented to the authority during any period specified in the regulations,
- (ab) for or in connection with requiring the proper officer of a local authority to publish the number of local government electors for the authority's area who must support any petition presented to the authority.
- (ac) as to the way in which local government electors for a local authority's area are to support a petition (including provision enabling local government electors to support petitions by telephone or by electronic means).
- (ad) as to the action which may, may not or must be taken by a local authority in connection with any petition,").
§ The noble Lord said: I beg to move.
§ [Amendment Nos. 206A and 206B, as amendments to Amendment No. 206, not moved.]
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.
Lord Whitty moved Amendments Nos. 207 to 216:
Page 12, line 23, at beginning insert ("as to").
Page 12, line 23, leave out ("given") and insert ("presented").
Page 12, line 24, at beginning insert ("as to").
Page 12, line 25, at beginning insert ("as to").
Page 12, line 26, at beginning insert ("as to").
Page 12, line 26, leave out ("to") and insert ("which may, may not or must").
Page 12, line 26, after ("before") insert ("or in connection with").
Page 12, line 27, at beginning insert ("as to").
Page 12, line 27, leave out r to- and insert ("which may, may not or must").
Page 12, line 27, at end insert (", and
( ) for or in connection with enabling the Secretary of State. in the event of any failure by a local authority to take any action permitted or required by virtue of the regulations, to take that action").
§ On Question, amendments agreed to.
The Deputy Chairman of Committees
In calling Amendment No. 217, I must say that if it is agreed to, I cannot call Amendment No. 219.
Lord Whitty moved Amendment No. 217:
Page 12, line 28, leave out subsections (3) to (5) and insert—
(""(3) The provision which may be made by virtue of subsection (2) includes provision which applies or reproduces (with or without modifications) any provisions of sections 18, 19.20 or (Operation of alternative arrangements).
(4) The number of local government electors mentioned in subsection (2)(aa) is to be calculated at such times as may be provided by regulations under this section and must not exceed 5 per cent. of the number of local government electors at any of those times.
(5) Nothing in subsection (2), (3) or (4) affects the generality of the power under subsection (1).").
§ The noble Lord said: I beg to move.
§ [Amendment No. 218, as an amendment to Amendment No. 217, not moved.]
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.
§ [Amendments Nos. 219 and 220 not moved.]
§ Clause 22, as amended, agreed to.151
§ Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton
I beg to move that the House do now resume. In moving this Motion, I suggest that the Committee stage on this Bill begin again not before 8.35 p.m. I draw the attention of noble Lords taking part in the dinner hour debate to the inaccuracy in the timing originally given. In order to keep within the time limit, the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, in opening the debate, may speak for 10 minutes. My noble friend Lady Scotland may speak for 12 minutes. Other speakers are allowed nine minutes.
§ Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House resumed.