Fifth Standing Committee on
Wednesday 28 November 2001
[Mr. John Cummings in the Chair]
Draft Local Government Commission for England (Transfer of Functions) Order 2001
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Dr. Alan Whitehead): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Local Government Commission for England (Transfer of Functions) Order 2001.
I am glad once again to serve under your Chairmanship, Mr. Cummings. The order provides for the transfer of the functions of the Local Government Commission for England to the Electoral Commission. It also provides for the associated functions of the Secretary of State to be transferred to the Electoral Commission. During the debates on the Bill that became the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, the Government made it clear that the Electoral Commission would take over all the functions of the Local Government Commission to make recommendations about local authority electoral arrangements and about authority boundaries and structures. We made it clear that that transfer would include giving to the Electoral Commission the Secretary of State's powers to implement the Local Government Commission's recommendations on electoral arrangements. We said that we intended that to take effect from 1 April 2002. If Parliament approves the draft order, we will make the order and fulfil our commitments.
Transferring the functions to the Electoral Commission is part of the reform and modernisation of the democratic framework of this country. It will strengthen public trust and increase confidence in our electoral arrangements by taking decisions on the boundaries of wards and electoral divisions and the number of councillors entirely out of the party political arena. Those decisions will be placed squarely in the hands of an independent commissionwhich is not to say that in the past decisions have been made other than on the basis of objective recommendations by independent people.
Successive Governments have sought scrupulously to demonstrate that, when designing electoral arrangements, they were not in any way motivated by narrow, party political interests. They have sought to achieve that by making it clear to the House that they would implement the Local Government Commission's recommendations unless they were in some way manifestly flawed. Even in such circumstances--they have never arisen--the only action the Government could take would be to ask the Local Government Commission for further recommendations.
However, such an approach is not without its drawbacks. First, there is the issue of perception. If decisions are taken by Ministers, there is always the risk that they will be perceived as being taken to further the Government's interests. Whatever the realities, such perceptions of electoral decisions can damage the strength of democratic processes and weaken public confidence in them. Secondly, such arrangements inevitably lead to a lack of clarity about who is responsible for a particular decision. Decisions about electoral arrangements can sometimes be highly controversial. If they are made formally by the Secretary of State in an order, it is hard for people, particularly those not favouring the decision, to understand that it is not the personal decision of the Secretary of State, but a decision of the local government commissioners that the Secretary of State is merely implementing. The Secretary of State may personally prefer some alternative, but as a matter of policy he does not intervene. Those niceties are often lost on those affected by such decisions.
The new arrangements contained in the order will overcome all that. In future, the Electoral Commission will decide on and implement new electoral arrangements. Everyone will know that it is responsible. Achieving such clarity and transparency is not the only advantage of transferring the functions to the Electoral Commission. Once the fifth general review of parliamentary constituencies is completed, it is intended that the Electoral Commission will assume the current responsibilities of the Parliamentary Boundary Commission. Once that has happened, all electoral boundaries at ward, county and parliamentary level will be the responsibility of the same bodythe Electoral Commission. That makes great sense given the inter-connection of the boundaries and the fact that wards are the building blocks of all other electoral areas. By unifying responsibility for all those boundaries, we shall make it easier to ensure that they and the various review processes for boundary changes are integrated in a proper and practical manner.
The current functions of the Local Government Commission include making recommendations about local authority administrative boundaries and structures when directed to do so by the Secretary of State. We shall transfer those functions to the Electoral Commission, along with the staff and assets of the Local Government Commission, which we shall then be able to wind up. We intend to do that by means of a separate order that is not subject to the affirmative procedure, which we shall introduce as soon as is practicable after all the commission's functions have been transferred.
We are transferring responsibility for making recommendations on administrative boundary and structure issues to the Electoral Commission, but we must put in place arrangements that properly recognise its independence. It would not be appropriate for the Secretary of State to direct it to undertake a review and come up with recommendations. The arrangements that are put in place will allow the Secretary of State, when he so wishes, to request the Electoral Commission to make recommendations on administrative boundary and structure issues. It will remain his responsibility to implement those recommendations through orders that are subject to parliamentary approval.
The transfer arrangements in the order will ensure the smooth continuance of the current round of reviews of local authority electoral arrangements. The Local Government Commission teams that are working on the reviews will simply continue their task, although they will be employees of the Electoral Commission from 1 April.
The order marks another step in our reform of this country's electoral and democratic machinery, and will improve and streamline it. It will bring greater transparency and accountability to the review of electoral arrangements, and will improve and simplify their administration. It will enable the Government to fulfil commitments given to the House to transfer the functions, staff and assets of the Local Government Commission for England to the Electoral Commission.
The order makes an important change. Let us make that change, to ensure that this is how the present Government and future Governments deal with electoral boundaries and local government reviews. I commend the order to the House.
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): I reiterate the Minister's comment that it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cummings.
The Minister noted that the order followed on from the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. He was at pains to make it clear that the transfer of powers from the Local Government Commission for England cast no shadow over the way in which it had exercised its responsibilities and duties. He also said that the order would consolidate those powers under the appropriate heading.
We are concerned less about the transfer of powers than about the powers that remain in legislation. The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions retains powers to issue directions as regards local government boundaries. I refer the Minister to schedule 1 of the order, which gives the Secretary of State powers to issue guidance on matters to be taken into account in considering structural or boundary changes. We are concerned that those powers couldcould rather than wouldbe misused. For example, a future Secretary of State may choose to intervene, motivated by party-political advantage, to alter the shape and content of wards. The word gerrymandering springs to mind, although I would not dream of accusing the present Government of that.
We know that the Government intend to introduce a tier of regional government. In the other place, Lord Falconer said that if that happened, a tier below, either at county or district council level, would have to go, because it would be inappropriate to have three levels. Therefore, we can be sure that the Government intend to remove a tier of local government, probably the shire councils, and we are concerned about the power of the Secretary of State being used to influence the agenda by making boundary changes that would undermine the boundaries of historic counties and lead swiftly to their demise. If central Government cannot be trusted in that regard, the power to direct should be left in the hands of the independent Electoral Commission.
Apart from the advantages to which the Minister has alluded, we believe that there is scope for budget efficienciesperhaps the Minister will confirm that in his response. The merger of the Local Government Commission and the Parliamentary Boundary Commission into the new Electoral Commission should lead to improved efficiency and greater coherence. Therefore, we seek assurances from the Minister that the changes will be accompanied by a reduction in the aggregated budget of those bodies, given the obvious potential for economies of scale. It would be wrong if a reduction in the number of quangos led to greater public expenditure. Will the Local Government Commission remain in its current offices or will it be relocated to the Electoral Commission's offices?
Under section 13 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, the commission has an obligation to
``promote public awareness of the institutions of the European Union.''
We are concerned that the Government may pressurise the commission to waste taxpayers' money on pro-European propaganda. Will the Minister assure the Committee that that will not be the case? Will he tell us what the new combined budget of the Electoral Commission will be, and say whether any of that budget, which was previous the budget of the Local Government Commission, will be diverted to pro-European propaganda?
The Minister alluded to the fact not only that the Local Government Commission is being transferred to the Electoral Commission but that, eventually, the Parliamentary Boundary Commission will also be transferred. I believe that a target date of 2005 has been given, but I ask the Government to set a date for the transfer as soon as possible. If transfers are to be made, it makes sense for them to take place quickly, so that we have one integrated body. We accept that there will be some synergy between the two bodies once they both form part of the Electoral Commission. Will the Minister confirm that the transfer will take place before 2005, and does he recognise that, the sooner that it is done, the greater the cost savings that will follow?
The order applies only to England. What is the status of the Local Government Boundary Commissions for Scotland and for Wales? The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act allows for those bodies relating to Scotland and to Wales to be transferred to the Electoral Commission after due direction from the Scottish Executive or the Assembly for Wales. It would be a waste of taxpayers' money if we lost the opportunity to consolidate the boundary commissions across the UKnot simultaneously, as that would be impossible, but within a short time.