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

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Mr. Waterson: Perhaps I have missed something, but I do not believe that section 28 has been repealed. It was due only to sustained pressure from my party and from religious leaders across the board that the Government had to abandon the proposal, despite the enthusiastic support of the hon. Gentleman's party.

Mr. Foster: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I was desperately trying to be quick, and I was far too quick in that respect. I am delighted that we were able to give our support to the attempt to end section 28, and I am sad that so far we have not succeeded. However, I am fairly certain that we will.

In another place, we were able to ensure significant changes to the freedom of councils to make decisions. We have always opposed the Government's imposition on councils of decision-making arrangements, and, although we would have wished all councils to have an opportunity to determine their own arrangements for decision-making, we have been able to achieve a reprieve for at least some councils. That is a significantly better record than was chalked up by the Conservatives.

I have covered several questions very quickly. Broadly speaking, the regulations deserve support, and we shall give it.

5.48 pm

Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme): I return to the question of the mayor. Mayors who are elected are called ``the mayor''. We can now elect a subsidiary mayor such as a lord mayor, as in Coventry; they are clearly different from mayors. Paragraph 13.31 makes no mention of a mayor; in fact, there is no suggestion anywhere that the original manner of electing mayors can continue. Coventry can continue to have its lord mayor and we in Newcastle can continue to have a mayor who is non-political.

When votes are counted, the counting officer will be the elected mayor. At present, the mayor, who is considered to be non-political, is the counting officer for referendums and any other ballots that occur within my borough. If the elected mayor is the counting officer, will he or she be prohibited from putting forward a campaign? Must the mayor remain independent, given that he or she will have the final say on elections? If the mayor is the leader of the council, can he or she remain independent?

My other question concerns the 28-day period when the council will be unable to publicise material about the referendum. Can councils publicise material before the 28-day period that clarifies the position on elected and non-elected mayors? If councils cannot do that, why can they not? That issue is causing a great deal of confusion.

5.50 pm

Mr. Loughton: The Minister has been faced with a barrage of questions, not least from Government Members, and I am aware of the pressure of time. Perhaps a great series of letters will be needed to answer hon. Members' questions.

I shall turn my attention primarily to the neighbourhood renewal fund, but I want to touch on the subject with which the Minister started; referendums. The further one delves into the detail—something that Opposition and Government Members have done—the more shortcomings and confusion one discovers. The exact status of the various different levels of mayor and what one calls them will cause confusion in the constituency of the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme. The various types of mayors could alternatively be called ``mayorettes'' and ``mayor minors''. Indeed, I am sure that different parts of the country can come up with their own slang.

The regulations are a mess, and the Minister has not made progress towards solving the prevalent confusion. I shall echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne on the inconsistency of the availability of the fourth option; the same can also be said about the use of referendums. There is great confusion in my constituency about when referendums will occur and who can trigger them after arrangements have been made. The trigger details must be publicised more widely.

I shall raise some questions about the mechanics of running referendums and possible experiments with postal ballots. Postal ballots have been suggested as a way of increasing the participation of the electorate in votes, be it in normal elections or referendums on any subject. They are, of course, costly to run, but I cast no view on whether or not we should promote them. They are, by their essence, open to corruption because the identity of the person casting the postal vote is obscure. What comments does the Minister have to make on the increasing use of postal ballots for referendums on the election of mayors and other issues?

The Minister also touched on the confusion surrounding those instances when a referendum coincides with, for example, a by-election. A by-election may be relevant to one ward only within a district, but a referendum on council structures and the election of a mayor will be relevant to the entire district. The turnout in the by-election ward for the by-election, as opposed to the referendum, will probably be greater because there is a bigger issue at stake. There is a concern about the distortion of turnouts in certain by-elections.

Another confusing matter concerns whether different modes of election could be used on the same day, in the same ward, for different votes? For example, could there be a by-election for a district council ward in which the voters in that ward have to troop out to the polling station to cast their vote in the traditional way while being able to use a postal ballot to vote in the referendum on council structures that is happening on the same day? Two different types of voting on the same day would be nonsensical. Does the Minister foresee that eventuality?

Can the Minister comment on the likelihood of referendums being proscribed by the Secretary of State for any form of executive, when he chooses to direct the local authority to hold a referendum? On what basis would such a direction be required? I refer now to super Thursday, the 28-day issue. When will be the cut-off point for information being sent out on the referendum? That is not a wholly unconnected issue, given the stance that various candidates could take not only in a by-election, but in the usual elections. We need more details about such matters.

The major issue is the neighbourhood renewal fund. The Minister has drawn the short straw today, because usually the Minister for Local Government and the Regions, the right hon. Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong), or the Under-Secretary of State, the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes), take up such challenges. We hear announcements about the fund either in the Chamber or, more likely, outside the Chamber; from the Ocean estate, for example, before such announcements were made in the House. Many questions arise from the way in which the neighbourhood renewal fund will work and how grants from the Secretary of State will be made. Again, there is great confusion.

There is great confusion in the Government's entire approach to urban regeneration. We now have up to 28 or 29 different cross-cutting schemes, which the Government's own Cabinet Office has described as exceedingly confusing. The schemes draw on the same resources across the same areas, which is an inefficient way of running urban regeneration. The hon. Member for Bath referred to the determination of appropriate areas. There is an enormous inconsistency with the criteria that the Government choose, depending on which initiative they latch on to. For neighbourhood renewal fund grants, the hon. Gentleman said that 81 districts are eligible and that the grants would be spread across 88 areas over the next three years.

The Government have chosen the top 50 most deprived districts, not wards. To put it loosely, when determining various financial incentives such as stamp duty exemptions on refurbishments, VAT exemptions or reduced rates when dealing with regeneration on groundfill sites, the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions will be basing their conclusions on the most deprived wards.

Why are there completely different criteria for the regeneration scheme? Why are they different from SRB round 6? It seemed a strange coincidence that the top 100 marginal Labour constituencies featured heavily in those areas that benefited from SRB 6 funding, although the majority of them did not have wards within those constituencies that featured in the top 10 per cent. of deprived wards that the Government usually use. The Minister will understand why our suspicions are raised when, yet again, different criteria are used when the Government hand out the goodies under the scheme.

The rather flimsy blue document contains little detail in contrast to the more bulky buff document that accompanies the conduct of referendums regulation. Will the Minister say how local authorities will be involved? The document says that the local neighbourhood renewal strategy groups will be providing services not provided by the local authority. Is that not an incentive for a local authority to say, ``Ah, we don't need to provide that any more because we have a special grant for another group that is part of the partnership that we shall be handling over the next few years. We can withdraw from that all together.''We are really seeing a shuffling of money.

Will the hon. Gentleman explain the exact role of the neighbourhood managers and wardens, who feature highly in the scheme that has been described by others Ministers in his Department? They did not feature in his speech this afternoon. What exactly will the neighbourhood managers and wardens be doing? To whom will they be accountable? Who will appoint them?

It being one and a half hours after the commencement of the proceedings, The Chairman put the Questions necessary to dispose of the proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(5).


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


Motion made and Question put:—

    That the Committee has considered the draft Local Government (Alternative Arrangements) (England) Regulations 2001—[Mr. Kevin Hughes.]

The Committee divided: Ayes 9, Noes 2.

Division No. 1]

Ainsworth, Mr. Robert
Davey, Valerie
Foster, Mr. Don
Golding, Mrs. Llin
Hughes, Mr. Kevin
Keeble, Ms Sally
Mallaber, Judy
Pickthall, Mr. Colin

Loughton, Mr. Tim
Waterson, Mr. Nigel

Question accordingly agreed to.



    That the Committee has considered the draft Local Government Finance (England) Special Grant Report No. 78 on the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund.—[Mr. Kevin Hughes.]

        Committee rose at one minute past Six o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Benton, Mr. Joe (Chairman)
Ainsworth, Mr. Robert
Curry, Mr.
Davey, Valerie
Foster, Mr. Don
Golding, Mrs.
Hughes, Mr. Kevin
Keeble, Ms
King, Ms Oona
Loughton, Mr.
Mallaber, Judy
Pickthall, Mr.
Waterson, Mr.

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Prepared 26 March 2001