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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

Draft Local Authorities (Conduct of Referendums) (England) Order 2001

Fourth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Monday 26 March 2001

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Draft Local Authorities (Conduct of Referendums) (England) Order 2001

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Robert Ainsworth): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Local Authorities (Conduct of Referendums) (England) Order 2001.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the draft Local Government (Alternative Arrangements) (England) Regulations 2001, and the Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report (No. 78) on the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund (HC paper 335).

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): On a point of order, Mr. Benton. Given that the Committee has yet to decide whether to accept the first of the three orders, was it appropriate for the Department to issue a press release announcing that it had already circulated details of procedures contained in it?

The Chairman: I am unaware of that matter and it is not one for the Chair, so I cannot comment. The only safe thing to do is to proceed with the business.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): On a separate point of order, Mr. Benton. It might assist the Chair if I offer some clarification. On the basis of informal discussions that took place earlier, the official Opposition agreed to take the order, the regulations and the report together, and to discuss them in one debate .However, it remains possible to vote separately on each at the end of the Committee. That is my understanding, and I hope that it is everyone else's.

The Chairman: I was about to put to the Committee that the matters before it be debated jointly, and I can confirm that the hon. Gentleman is right: the Questions will be put separately at the conclusion of our proceedings, and there will be an opportunity to vote on each independently.

Mr. Ainsworth: To avoid confusion about the first point of order, I should say that my understanding is that the Department has recently issued guidance on the conduct of petitions relating to replacing a council with an elected mayor, rather than on the conduct of referendums, which is the substance of our discussions. Such matters might well be relevant in the light of a successful petition, but the two issues are certainly not the same. I hope that the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) is happy with that explanation and does not feel that we are acting in an untoward way, or that there is any secrecy other than that with which he is fully involved—something that the Opposition have accused us of in the past.

It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr. Benton, and I shall speak to each order in turn. The draft regulations on the conduct of referendums make detailed provision for the holding of referendums under part II of the Local Government Act 2000. They set out the requirements necessary to ensure that local referendums are conducted well, and put in place the technical provisions required to ensure that they run smoothly. The regulations follow as closely as possible existing provision for the conduct of elections and referendums as set out in other legislation, and take account wherever possible of new developments in the electoral process.

Councils are required to hold a referendum on proposals for executive arrangements in three main circumstances. First, an authority must hold a referendum when, following consultation, it draws up proposals for a form of constitution for which a referendum is required—in other words, proposals that include a form of elected mayor. Secondly, a council must hold a referendum where it receives a valid petition for a form of constitution that includes an elected mayor; and, thirdly, when it is required to do so by a direction from the Secretary of State concerning any form of executive provided for under the 2000 Act.

The draft regulations cover the full range of provisions needed to hold referendums, and reflect the extensive consultation that the Government carried out in 2000 and 2001 on new constitutions and referendums in particular. I should like to bring several draft regulations to the attention of hon. Members before we debate them.

Regulation 3, and part I to schedule 1, prescribe the question to be asked in a referendum. We must ensure fairness in referendums, and the questions set out in schedule 1 are the simplest and most straightforward way of asking local electors. We have consulted widely on the referendum questions, including with the two main political parties, and they have been drafted in light of that consultation.

Regulations 4 and 5 define the publicity and other information that a council must and must not publish in connection with the referendum. These provisions require local authorities to publish factual information about the proposals, fall-back proposals or the conduct of the referendum, and they prevent them from spending public money on publicity that is designed to influence the way in which people vote. The restrictions do not, however, prevent councils from encouraging people to vote, responding to requests for information or rebutting factual inaccuracies through press notices.

Regulations 6 and 7, and schedule 2, define the maximum limit of expenditure by, or on behalf of, an individual or an organisation's campaign. The provisions follow, so far as it is practical, the philosophy set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Following the pilots of electoral innovations conducted in the local elections last year, regulation 10 permits councils to hold a referendum by an all-postal ballot.

Finally, regulations 14 to 17 and schedule 5 provide for a combination of referendums with other polls in the same area. Generally, when a referendum is scheduled within 28 days either side of the date of general election, a parliamentary by-election, European parliamentary election or an ordinary election for either the authority in question or an authority in the same area, polls must be combined. A referendum cannot therefore be held in the period 28 days either side of those elections, except when the date of the election is after the date of the publication or if the council has determined that the referendum will be all postal before the date of the election has been announced.

The draft regulations set out alternative arrangements that introduce a fourth option for a streamlined committee system with overview and scrutiny for district councils in two-tier areas with a population below 85,000. It fulfils the Government's commitments in accepting the Liberal Democrat amendments to the Local Government Act 2000, which make such alternative arrangements available to small shire district councils. The Act also provides for councils that want to implement a form of executive arrangement that requires a referendum—a mayor and cabinet or a mayor and a council manager—to draw up proposals for fall-back arrangements to be implemented should the local electorate vote no in that referendum. Those alternative arrangements are one of two options that we currently intend to make available to councils in such circumstances.

Hon. Members will recall that when the Local Government Act 2000 was considered in Committee, we made clear our belief that executive arrangements provide the best form of governance to replace the traditional committee system. We nevertheless recognised the views of Liberal Democrat Members and accepted the need for an alternative system of a streamlined committee structure with overview and scrutiny for small shire districts.

The regulations make that streamlined committee system available. They provide for a stronger role for the full council, setting the authority's budget and providing the policy framework within which the committee system will operate. Together with the guidance, they provide for fewer and smaller policy committees. Most importantly, they require every council that operates alternative arrangements to put in place robust arrangements for overview and scrutiny.

For the record, I inform the Committee that I am satisfied that the regulations arising from the Local Government Act 2000 comply with the Human Rights Act 1998.

The traditional committee system has served local government well, but is now creaking at the seams. It is essential that councils adopt a more streamlined form of decision making. The statutory limit on the number of councillors who can be on committees, coupled with the statutory guidance recommending that there should be no more than five policy committees, achieves that aim, while giving councils the flexibility to meet local circumstances.

Having listened to representations from the Local Government Association and others, we decided not to include regulatory committees in the description of committees to which the limitations apply. The regulations and guidance make specific exceptions for committees that discharge quasi-judicial functions which, under the executive arrangements, would not be the responsibility of the executive.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): Has the Minister read the article in today's Financial Times saying that the Government have been tempted by the idea that a larger number of smaller Departments of State might deliver joined-up government more effectively than a limited number of gigantic Departments? If that is so, does he think that the Government are likely to be governed by their own precepts in respect of local government, or do they believe that a wholly different philosophy applies?

Mr. Ainsworth: I must admit to the hon. Gentleman that, much to my own disgust, I have not yet read the Financial Times. I shall do so immediately after the Committee has risen, and if I think that his question is relevant to the matters under discussion, I shall respond to him. However, I suspect that he is making a political point.

Overview and scrutiny will be at least as key to councils operating alternative arrangements as to councils operating executive arrangements. Overview and scrutiny committees provide the means to develop and review policy and to scrutinise decisions that the council and its committees make. They will of course operate somewhat differently under alternative arrangements, but will be no less important.

Regulations 7 to 17 deal with the overview and scrutiny of education, where that is the responsibility of the authority concerned, and reflect the importance that the Government attach to providing a voice for church and parent governor representatives in decision making at school and local authority level. The regulations provide for the appointment of church representatives to overview and scrutinise committees with a remit that includes education. Representatives of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church are granted that right directly, and representatives of other faiths and denominations may be granted such rights on an authority-by-authority basis by direction of the Secretary of State. The regulations also provide for at least two, but not more than five, parent governor representatives on such overview and scrutiny committees.

The conduct of referendums and alternative arrangements regulations will, subject to parliamentary approval, form an integral part of the Government's modernisation agenda for local government, and will allow councils to continue the implementation of their new constitutions.


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Prepared 26 March 2001