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22 May 2007 : Column 1140

The new clause delivers the White Paper commitment to give local authorities holding whole council elections the freedom to move to single-member electoral areas. By that, we mean district wards or county divisions, although most of the latter are single-member areas. Single-member areas can deliver stronger accountability. They provide a strong link between the councillor and his or her electorate and give clarity of leadership to the locality.

Calls for single-member wards are well established. In 1986, the Widdicombe Committee recommended them, stating that they

In 1995, the Local Government Commission for England supported the Widdicombe recommendations for single-member wards. We are giving local authorities the opportunity to act on those recommendations, if they wish to do so. It is a matter for the authorities.

We also recognise that single-member electoral areas are not always the right solution. There may be individual local circumstances, such as the geography of the area, that make multi-member wards more appropriate. Single-member electoral areas are clearly not a sound electoral option when there are elections by thirds, since that would result in not all the council’s electors having a vote in an election. That position should be avoided whenever possible.

There is no question of requiring single-member electoral areas everywhere. We are giving local authorities the choice of requesting them when they consider it right to do that. Councils that do not have whole council elections will not have such a choice. Those that have whole council elections can make the choice as they see fit. Again, it is a devolutionary measure.

Councils that want single-member electoral wards can request the Electoral Commission to direct the boundary committee to undertake a review of their area and make recommendations. If there is a large demand for single-member areas, the Commission would have to establish a work programme and decide on the timing of the reviews. In conducting those reviews, the boundary committee will be required to have regard to statutory criteria used for electoral reviews. Those are: reflecting community identity and interests, ensuring effective and convenient local government, and providing equality of representation. If the boundary committee considers that those statutory criteria cannot be met everywhere for the council under review with single-member electoral areas, it will exceptionally be able to recommend one or more multi-member electoral areas for that council in order to provide a better balance between the statutory criteria.

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New clause 6 and the remaining Government amendments in the group make the necessary consequential and paving provisions to allow part 2 of the Bill to operate effectively. That includes ensuring that the boundary committee can, in conducting electoral reviews, obtain the information that it needs from local authorities. Taken together, the new clauses and amendments deliver our White Paper commitment to devolve to councils the initiative to seek single-member electoral areas where it is right to do so.

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Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): I have always rather liked single-member electoral areas for reasons that the Minister has suggested. There is a line of accountability with smaller districts, which can make life that little bit easier. We had quite a canter around the subject in Committee, where I raised some concerns because it was not clear at that stage whether varying the number of members per ward was to be upwards or downwards. We received the Minister’s assurances that it would be three, two or one and I recall our discussing the geography of Tameside in great detail.

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) made a good argument about the position when authorities put together many towns that all have their own proud history. He argued that fitting the electoral arrangements to suit strong local ties sometimes caused difficulty. I know from experience as a parliamentary candidate in Walsall that it was not unusual to find that an electoral area based on a housing estate had had a bit added on from somewhere 3 or 4 miles away in order to meet the electoral arrangements. I can see the overwhelming logic of what the Government are trying to do, but I would like to probe them further on one or two aspects.

Under new clause 4, an authority that has a council election will be able to apply to the Electoral Commission for single-member wards or to review each of the electoral areas within its district. If it had 20 wards, I presume—I would like the Minister to confirm it—that it could recommend that they all be single-member areas or that some should be three or two or one in order to suit the local circumstance. I presume that the boundary committee would look into any such proposal, reflect on it and consult before giving its decision to the local authority.

I presume that the purpose is to stop gerrymandering. Clearly, a ward of three members might have one political outcome, but in a ward of two members or one it would not be beyond the wit of anyone who had knocked on doors and gained some feel for the area to create a different pattern of representation. If an authority were allowed to do that without going to the boundary committee, it might be possible to break up certain wards in a borough for some sort of party political advantage. We all realise that we would not want that, simply because if one party won one borough that way, another party might do it in another borough—so we all want a fair system of representation.

Will the Minister confirm that if an authority puts up a scheme, some consultation would have to take place? I presume that the boundary committee would undertake further consultation in order to decide whether to approve a scheme or, if not, to give its reasons for declining it. I presume that the boundary committee could propose variations on a scheme, as with any of its dealings, because it does not wholly agree with what the authority is proposing.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): I am following my hon. Friend’s logic with considerable interest. Does he understand whether the proposal might involve a two-way street? I am not clear about that; perhaps the Minister will clarify the point when she winds up the debate. If the boundary committee decides that a one-member ward is a good idea and that goes ahead,
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but for one reason or another it does not work as well as expected, will it be possible to make a similar application after five or six years, saying, for example, “Okay, it hasn’t worked. Let’s go back to a two or three-member ward”?

Mr. Syms: Perhaps the Minister will pick up that point later. It is clear that the Government have moved on the question of whole council elections, and there might be further debate on that issue. My response to my hon. Friend is that all local authorities have their electoral arrangements reviewed periodically, and I presume that if they change their arrangements between one, two or three members in a particular borough, the next time a review took place within the ordinary schedule, those arrangements could be changed again. I do not see any great reason for an immediate change to that process. Also, determining whether something works or does not work can sometimes be quite subjective.

A local authority will produce a scheme and present it to the boundary committee, which will either approve it or give its reasons for not doing so. I would be grateful if the Minister could say whether, if there were a variation on the scheme, the boundary committee could enter into negotiations or propose changes to the scheme. Alternatively, would the boundary committee have to accept or reject the scheme put forward by the local authority with a yes or a no? How much dialogue could take place?

The Minister looks somewhat quizzical. If a local authority put forward a scheme for its area to the boundary committee, and the boundary committee agreed with 90 per cent. of it but had concerns about 10 per cent., would it have to reject it entirely on the ground of that 10 per cent. that it believed the local authority had got wrong, or could there be a degree of discussion whereby both sides could reach agreement, with the scheme being rejected only if there were no common ground? A great deal of time could be wasted if local authorities’ schemes were simply chucked out because of a disagreement on just part of the proposal. I should like to hear a little more detail about how the provision will operate, but the Government are going down the right road in the manner in which they are constructing the various new clauses.

Given our concerns about aspects of the provision, however, we have tabled amendment No. 163, which calls for a referendum in the affected wards. We are unlikely to press that to a vote, because I am not sure how practical the proposal is. It is just the Opposition trying to flesh out the fact that there could be concerns among the electorate, who are used to the way in which their electoral arrangements work and might be worried about any proposed changes.

Michael Fabricant: Does my hon. Friend accept that the concept of one man—or, indeed, one woman—for one ward has a certain simplicity, just as one Member of Parliament for one constituency does? In my constituency, we have Lichfield city council—as you know, Madam Deputy Speaker—and Lichfield district council. In the recent local elections, people were confronted with one ballot paper on which they had to vote for five candidates, and another on which they had to vote for three. They then had to put the buff ballot
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paper in the yellow ballot box—it was meant to be a yellow ballot paper, but it had been printed on buff paper—and the white ballot paper in the white box. Basically, it all got very confusing. There is a certain elegance to the idea of one person for one ward.

Mr. Syms: The first-past-the-post system—particularly the single-Member first-past-the-post system—is the simplest, which is why we tend not to get many spoilt ballots. We shall have to wait for the review into what happened north of the border, but it is clear that problems can arise with the more complicated electoral systems, particularly if more than one system is in operation on the same day. Having looked at the ballots in Poole borough, where we have three-member wards elected in the whole council election, I am still surprised that some people do not understand that they have to vote three times. Some people might deliberately vote just once, if, for example, there is only one Labour candidate, but these systems can cause a degree of confusion.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): If I have interpreted the amendment correctly, it proposes that if a council holds a referendum on a change in the organisational details and the referendum fails to approve it, a process should take place to inform the public that the status quo will continue. However, it does not propose that should the referendum approve the change a formal notice should appear in the newspapers telling people that their electoral system will change. Is that an oversight, or is there a reason for it?

Mr. Syms: It is a probing amendment; it is not meant to be perfect legislation. People become used to a particular system, and although most of us think that a single-member system would have its benefits, it might well cause concern in certain areas. It is horses for courses. Let us call this the Tameside question. I think that the proposed system would work well in industrial communities where it might be possible to devise a better arrangement.

Amendment No. 265, tabled by the Liberal Democrats, concerns election dates. I am sure that the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) will speak to the amendment, but I will say that in Committee we briefly discussed organising local elections to coincide with the dates of European elections. That would have various benefits and disbenefits, but the amendment suggests that if the Government decided to hold the elections on the same day they should give 12 months’ notice. I do not think that unreasonable, because we know the dates of local and European elections. If there is to be a change, I do not see why the parties and returning officers should not be given the maximum amount of time to deal with it.

I welcome the thrust of the Government’s new clauses and amendments, which I think make the position a little clearer, but I hope that the Minister will be able to give us a few reassurances about the way in which the new system might work.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): First, I declare an interest as a member of Tameside metropolitan borough council. I am flattered that the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) referred to “the Tameside question”. I am also pleased that the Government have an answer
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to the Tameside question, if not to the West Lothian question. However, to be fair to my constituents in Stockport, I think that there is also a Stockport question. My arguments in Committee about Dukinfield and Audenshaw are also relevant to Heaton Chapel and Heaton Norris in my constituency, which, by virtue of being split between the South Reddish and the North and South Heaton wards, is represented in Parliament both by me and by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey).

When we consider local areas of that kind, we understand that home really is where the heart is. The people of Heaton Chapel and Heaton Norris feel that they are part of a single identifiable community, as are those in Dukinfield and in Audenshaw. It is very frustrating for them to be told by petty bureaucrats that they are no longer in the ward to which the majority of their community belongs. They become very passionate about it. I am pleased that the Government’s proposals mean that if communities in those areas wish it, there can be much smaller wards reflecting the make-up of those communities. If the proposals are accepted, the people of Heaton Norris will no longer have to be represented by South Reddish councillors, but can be represented by Heaton Norris councillors. Likewise, those in Dukinfield will not need to be split between the Dukinfield and Dukinfield Stalybridge wards.

I do not think that a referendum is necessary, however. I think that in areas such as those I have mentioned there will be a popular will for the changes, and that as long as the checks and balances provided by the Electoral Commission and the boundary committee are retained, any grievances expressed by political parties can be raised fairly at the public inquiry.

Michael Fabricant: I was on a narrow boat last weekend, and one of my companions was Clive Patrick who stood for the Conservatives in Stalybridge—he lost, although he put up a brave fight. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the Government’s proposal offers a good opportunity for such small towns and villages to have their own individual representatives, rather than a larger amorphous mass?

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Andrew Gwynne: I agree, although I must add that the hon. Gentleman’s friend probably lost handsomely in Stalybridge and Hyde, which is part of the Labour stronghold of Tameside. That takes us back to the Tameside question. There are not only the nine fiercely independent towns that were cobbled together—to borrow a phrase used by the hon. Member for Poole—in 1974, but within those communities there are smaller identifiable areas. For example, in my town of Denton there is Haughton Green and Dane Bank, which I have the privilege of representing on the council. Such areas have as much right to be recognised as the towns and districts.

The Government amendments are the right way forward: without the need for a referendum they ensure that where there is the will among local people to be recognised in smaller areas, that can be achieved. Certainly in metropolitan districts, that was not possible in the past. That is why I welcome the Government amendments.

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Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): Things would be a great deal easier for the Government and the Conservatives if there were proportionality in the voting system. That would be fairer for the voter and simplify the legislation substantially, and some of the issues that have been highlighted would not have arisen. However, given that we have been unsuccessful in persuading Members to add such a provision to the Bill, we do not dissent from the Government’s proposals and think that the direction that they are going in is appropriate.

Nevertheless, I wish to discuss our amendment No. 265. It is simple: it proposes that any order to bring together local elections and European elections should be made at least a year before it is due to take effect. We discussed in Committee the concept of bringing together those two dates, and the Minister explained the Government’s thinking. I have subsequently received a letter from the Electoral Commission—I am unsure whether an identical letter has been sent to the Minister. Its author states:

about the new clause. The letter goes on to say that the new clause allows the Secretary of State

The Electoral Commission gives two reasons for that:

Tom Levitt: Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the Government were right to postpone the 2005 county council elections because of the problems caused by foot and mouth disease? Does he accept that 12 months’ notice could not possibly have been given in that situation, and that his amendment would make those circumstances impossible to address in the same way as they were on that occasion?

Andrew Stunell: The hon. Gentleman, who is a close geographical neighbour of mine, is absolutely wrong, because whether this provision is added to the Bill would make no difference to the procedure used when the foot and mouth epidemic broke out, when provisions had to be brought before the House and discussed. That is the safeguard situation. This provision does not remove the capacity of the Government or Parliament to change dates in an emergency—such as the invasion of Kent by some unforeseen enemy. One can see that changes might have to be made in extremis, but the provision is not about such situations; nor, when Ministers introduced the provision, did they suggest that it had anything to do with such situations.

As well as giving two reasons for concern, the Electoral Commission pointed out that the provision is
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consistent with existing legislation. I was not aware of the reference it gives, but it says:

In one sense, this is a probing amendment, but we have been put up to it by the Electoral Commission, which has given good reasons why it should be taken more seriously than just an attempt to squeeze a concession out of the Government. The commission has made a strong case, and all the Opposition parties share the concerns about it. The present Government are full of integrity and good intentions—they never make a mistake or a cheap political judgment—so, obviously, I exonerate them from the wild accusation by the commission that they might be involved in such activity. However, the commission also mentions future Governments, and by the time we reach June 2009, Labour might be in opposition and might face a different, more oppressive Government.

In Committee, the Minister was quizzed on the point of introducing the provision. She replied:

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