Draft Local Government Commission for England (Transfer of Functions) Order 2001

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4.45 pm

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Cummings. The establishment of an electoral commission has been Liberal Democrat policy for many years. I congratulate the Government on pursuing reform to the point where one has been established, and it will take over the functions that previously fell to the Local Government Commission for England. Such functions should not include the promotion of the virtues or otherwise of membership of any international body, be it the European Union or any other, but it should have a role in promoting turnout at elections. Governments have a duty to make it as easy as possible for citizens to exercise their vote—not to compel them, but to encourage them.

An important aspect of the promoting turnout is the work of drawing up ward boundaries. Communities are important—if people identify with the electoral area in which they live, they have a reason for voting. Some people say that they do not vote because they do not feel part of the community where they live. At the weekend, a person came to my surgery from a part of Paignton that is in the rural Totnes constituency—that is, not in my constituency. When I referred him to the MP in the neighbouring constituency, he said that he had not voted in the last election because he did not feel part of Totnes. There must be many such examples all round the country. The drawing of the lines on the map is therefore very important in encouraging people to become involved in democracy and to exercise their franchise. I support Bill.

4.49 pm

Dr. Whitehead: I am pleased to hear from the hon. Members for North-East Cambridgeshire and for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) that the measure has support across all parties. That is important, because it ensures that the proposed arrangements will stand the test of time, and that that is how we will do things in the future. I note the concerns of the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire about elements of the proposals, and I hope to be able to give him assurances. It might be necessary to write to him about one or two technical matters that he has mentioned.

The key issue that he raised related to the power that will be retained by the Secretary of State to decide and control the outcome of structural changes in local government. It is proper for Parliament to discuss that and decide about it. The power is being retained in specific circumstances. Although the Secretary of State will have the power to implement change in the structure of local government by order, it is difficult to conceive of any circumstances, under the present or any future Government, in which such a power would be used without a request for advice from the Electoral Commission.

The important difference that we are establishing is that the Secretary of State will in future have power only to give guidance to the Electoral Commission in the first place and to request it to conduct an investigation on matters affecting the overall structure of local government. The Electoral Commission might decide that it did not want to accede to such a request, or it might provide an answer pertaining to the results of its investigation into the structure of local government, which the Secretary of State would have to add to any order. He would not be able simply to disregard it. It might present information profoundly antipathetic to the ideas that the Secretary of State had advanced. The change being brought about is that the Secretary of State can no longer give a direction, but may only make a request, even if a structural change is envisaged and the power is retained by the Secretary of State to take the final decision to modify or change proposals.

The points raised by the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire about efficiency and coherence are likely to be borne out. Greater efficiency is likely with respect to the overall considerations of the Electoral Commission, in that considerations are to be unified under one roof—although whether that will be literally so, I do not know.

Mr. Moss: Is the Minister telling the Committee that the Government have embarked on all this change, but that no one, not even the Treasury, has done any work to establish whether a cost saving will result from the amalgamation of the various bodies?

Dr. Whitehead: The proposed change is not based on a cost saving, but on the Government's undertaking—I note, in this context, the comments of the hon. Member for Torbay—that it is right in principle to make it clear that the Secretary of State does not have a power to direct changes as in the past.

Mr. Moss: Whether the changes are right or wrong--I do not disagree with them in principle--any change brought about by the Government has cost implications. Surely the Treasury has a view as to whether the changes, which may be right in themselves, have a cost impact. It is right to build hospitals, but that has a revenue impact. I imagine that both the Department of Health and the Treasury have a view as to the cost of those changes.

Dr. Whitehead: The best assurance that I can give the hon. Gentleman is that benefits from collocation and co-decision making are very likely. It is difficult for the Treasury to take the instrumental view that he suggests, because the Electoral Commission will not be a quango. Its budget responsibilities will be exercised by the House through the Speaker's Committee. In future, all budget issues for the Electoral Commission will be budget issues for the Speaker's Committee, so consideration of them is a function of the House, and not of the Government through the Treasury. There is an important distinction between the functions of quangos and non-departmental public bodies and those of the Electoral Commission.

Mr. Moss: Will the Minister confirm that additional funds have been earmarked for the proper operation of the Speaker's Committee in exercising its function through the Electoral Commission?

Dr. Whitehead: I can confirm that the budget of the Local Government Commission is about £3 million this year. Next year's Electoral Commission budget, as approved by the Speaker's Committee, covers the costs of transferred staff and reflects the benefits of collocation. There is no reason to believe that the decisions of the Speaker's Committee about next year's Electoral Commission budget will not be met. They will be, because those decisions are based on the needs of the Electoral Commission as a commission working with the authority of the House.

Mr. Moss: I do not question whether the running costs will be met, as I am sure that they will be. The Minister is telling us that the Speaker's Committee has a blank cheque for whatever costs arise. I cannot believe that government operates in that way.

Dr. Whitehead: The hon. Gentleman should have a little more confidence in the House's ability to regulate the expenditure undertaken in pursuance of its duties, which are concerned at heart with the protection and enhancement of democracy. Democracy costs money. The budget awarded to the Electoral Commission by the Speaker's Committee, which is responsible to the House, could be seen as a blank cheque, to use the hon. Gentleman's term, but that is not the case. Those who make decisions concerning expenditure that is the responsibility of the House are directly responsible to it. The House can and does take a view on the appropriateness of expenditure that arises from responsibilities discharged by the Electoral Commission and other bodies directly responsible to the House.

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central): That is all very well, but the House can scrutinise expenditure only if it knows the budgets to which the Government work. The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) says that there do not seem to be any costings or budgets. The idea may be admirable, and I am sure that it is, but it seems extraordinary to go ahead with a plan that has not been budgeted. The House has had no opportunity to determine whether it will be kept within budget.

Dr. Whitehead: The House has an opportunity to consider the decisions made by the Speaker's Committee on the sums allocated for the various functions undertaken by the House. The budget that the Electoral Commission will work to is authorised, agreed, regulated and reported to the House by the Speaker's Committee, and is a direct charge on the Consolidated Fund.

Mr. Fisher: What is the cost?

The Chairman: Order. Does the hon. Gentleman wish to intervene?

Mr. Fisher: Will the Minister tell us what the budget is? Without that information, the Public Accounts Committee cannot know whether it is good value.

Dr. Whitehead: No, I cannot tell my hon. Friend what the budget is. As I emphasised, it is the responsibility of the Speaker's Committee, which is accountable to the House. Ministers do not have the final say over how the budget is discharged, because it is the responsibility of the House and a direct charge on the Consolidated Fund. The House makes such moneys available to the organisations that it sets up to discharge the activities for which it is responsible. Those organisations include the Electoral Commission.

Mr. Sanders: I want to be helpful, but setting up an independent commission that exercises quasi-judicial functions will involve a change in costs year on year. It would not be right to take decisions about the budget out of the hands of politicians and put them in the hands of the Secretary of State without there being input from other people. I am not surprised that the Minister does not know what the budget is, and it is probably right that he does not set it. It is set in the right place—the Speaker's Committee.

Dr. Whitehead: I thank the hon. Member for his kind assistance. He underlines my point that the budget is determined by the House, not the Government. Indeed, as the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire speculated, the budget is, in effect, already discharged through the activities of the Local Government Commission, the Parliamentary Boundary Commission and so on. Although the Electoral Commission has some new functions, it essentially amalgamates existing budgets. One might speculate that its collocation and co-decision making will allow it to utilise them with greater efficiency and economy. It is not, however, a Government function to determine the budget, which is why I cannot give the Committee accurate details about it.

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Prepared 28 November 2001