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(3) Subsection (4) applies where by virtue of section 14 of the Interpretation Act 1978 (c. 30) (implied power to amend) any subordinate legislation is amended in consequence of the repeal of Part 5 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 (c. 42).
(b) a council is subject to a scheme for elections by halves if one-half (or as nearly as may be) of its councillors are to be elected in each year in which it holds ordinary elections of councillors;
(c) a council is subject to a scheme for elections by thirds if one-third (or as nearly as may be) of its councillors are to be elected in each year in which it holds
ordinary elections of councillors.. [Mr. Woolas.]
Mr. Woolas: Putting my CIPFA guidance to one side, we come to a highly political matter that was the subject of significant and constructive debate in Committee. It may be helpful to the House if I explain the purpose and effect of the new clauses and amendments and why we have proposed them.
The effect of the new clauses and amendments would be to allow local authorities that have at any time been subject to a scheme for partial council electionsnormally referred to as thirds, although that is not always the casebut that are subject to a scheme for whole council elections to revert to a
scheme for partial council elections. To use the political jargon, if a council has moved from thirds to all outs, can it move back? I know that there are differences in two-tier areasthe Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela E. Smith), has explained them to me.
The Government amendments also amend part 2 of the Bill to require local authorities to pass resolutions for changing their schemes for elections by a two-thirds majority. The same figure applies to districts at the moment. In addition, they extend the permitted resolution period during which a metropolitan district council may first resolve to move to a scheme for whole council elections from 31 December 2007 to 31 December 2009. My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner), who represents such an area, pressed that point in the Committee.
In Committee, we listened carefully to the concerns expressed by hon. Members from all three parties about the proposal that local authorities that resolve to move to whole council elections should be unable to move back to partial council elections. At the end of an extremely constructive Committee debate, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) withdrew the amendments that would have allowed county councils and London boroughs to move to partial council elections, even though there is no tradition of partial council elections in those areas.
We believe that if a council has always held whole council electionsthat is the pattern of election that the Electoral Commission recommended and demonstrated to be in the interests of electors and effective democratic processesit would be perverse to give it the option of moving away from those arrangements. However, in Committee we undertook to give further consideration to whether amendments should be made that would allow areas with a tradition of partial council elections to return to that scheme if they thought that whole council elections were not appropriate in their area. I hope that the House will find that the amendments address the concerns that were expressed in Committee, when the issue was subject to extremely constructive scrutiny.
I hope that I have support in saying that a great deal of experience was brought to the Committee by Members of all partiespeople spoke as constituency Members, irrespective of their Government or Opposition roles, and some powerful points were made. The debate has been around for 50 years. I do not want to bore the House with details of my bedtime reading, but I am reading the memoirs of a predecessor in the 1950s, who explained that in 1955-56 the Conservative party had an election commitment to, and a debate in Cabinet on, election by thirds. It wanted to ensure election by thirds in order to secure strong executive leadership on the councils. Fifty years later, that position has been turned around by events but the subject is still debated by elected representatives, both in the House and on councils. It is an important issue, and that is why we considered it in the light of the points made by the Committee. We tabled this group of amendments in that spirit. I am
glad to see that, if my reading of the amendment paper is correct, there are no non-Government amendments on the subject, so I hope that our point is accepted.
Michael Fabricant: Has the Minister, in his extensive reading or in the research that his Department does on his behalf, noticed any pattern and found that one particular group of councils goes for thirds, while another chooses all-out elections, or is it completely random?
Mr. Woolas: That is an interesting point. The Governments central intention in introducing the measures is to devolve the decision from the Secretary of State to the council. At the moment, the Secretary of State, or Ministers and officials acting on her behalf, take the decision. In my time in office, I have been asked to take decisions on elections in areas of which, in all honesty, I have no personal knowledge, although of course advice is available. We think that that is wrong and we want to devolve that responsibility. We want the safeguard of the two thirds.
The evidence available is inconclusive. There are many views on why particular decisions are taken. As we debated in Committee, there are those who say that elections by thirds keep the council in touch with the public, keep it on its toes, and make it more responsive. Equally, there are those who say that all-out elections provide for stronger decisions and mean that councils can take better quality decisions in the long run. If we look at the ratings by the Audit Commission and others, we can see that there are cases where there is no relationship between the rating and the electoral cycle. There are also examples of cases in which there is a relationship, and where local and other factors seem to come into play. Indeed, it is partly because there is no decisive evidence, although there is a body of knowledge, that we decided to table the amendments.
Let me briefly explain the principles behind the amendments. The Governments starting pointthe manifesto mentioned thisis the belief that whole council elections create the framework most likely to support and promote the strong and accountable leadership that we need if powers and responsibilities are to be devolved to local councils. There is a relationship between devolution and the responsible holding of power. Whole council elections can strengthen democratic processes by providing clarity to the electorate.
Secondly, we believe that local authorities should make the decision. That is why the Bill will give them the power to make a resolution to change the electoral cycle if they believe that to be in the best interests of their area. Thirdly, as we stated in the White Paper, we recognise that the pattern of local elections can reflect long-held traditions and be part of the culture of local public life. If a council has been subject to partial council elections since the local government reorganisation in 1974, it will be able to move to whole council electionsand, if it sees fit, it can subsequently return to elections by thirds. I reiterate that the option of moving to partial council elections should not, in our view, be extended to areas where there is no such tradition.
there should not be a constant ping-pong.[ Official Report, Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Public Bill Committee, 8 February 2007; c. 211.]
We therefore propose that any resolution to change the cycle or scheme for elections must be made at a specially convened meeting and be passed by a two- thirds majority of those voting. That will ensure that a significant majority of councillors support the change being made. That is the process that currently applies for district councils that have the option of requesting the Secretary of State to make that change.
Fifthly, we need to set out when a change of electoral cycles can realistically first be made under the Bill. We propose that if a metropolitan district council chooses to make a change, having obtained a two-thirds majority in support of that choice, the first year in which it can have a whole council election will be 2010. For shire districts, including unitaries, the first year will be 2011. I have set those dates because it would be wrong if the electorate were not aware of what they were voting for. If the move was made during the current electoral cycle, it could be unfair. The new clauses and amendments in the group that we are discussing follow the five principles that I have just outlined.
Michael Fabricant: The Ministers argument is interesting. Would he go further and say that although proposed changes are not set out in the Bill, they really should be in a manifesto? Let us suppose that a council argued for a change from election by thirds to all-out elections, or vice versa. The Minister is saying that the safeguard is that the change will happen in the next electoral cycle. The proposal should therefore really be set out in some form of manifesto, so that people know what they are voting for.
Mr. Woolas: Yes, I agree with that. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and that is partly why I chose the dates that I mentioned. If a party stood for election and won a majority, perhaps not unexpectedly, and then told the electorate that it was moving to all-out elections, that would not be fair. I therefore agree with the hon. Gentlemans point, and a random sample of opinion among Labour Members, taken in the past few moments, shows that there is consensus among Labour Members, too.
I very much agree with the Ministers last observations and I suspect that there is consensus on the point that he makes. I am interested in the references to halves. Perhaps it comes of having lived a sheltered life in the London boroughs and the home counties, where elections are either all-out or by thirds, but I am interested to hear whether there is any significant demand for elections by halves, how many local authorities come out for halves, and what place that option holds in the argument. I can see the argument for all-out elections, which the Minister has advanced, and I can see the argument for thirdsthat, too, has been advanced, and it is well known to all of usbut election by halves seems an odd hybrid animal. Perhaps it is an historical anomaly. I would be interested to hear the Ministers thoughts. Is it a route that the Government seek to encourage; is it merely included as an option, as a result of their desire to
maximise devolution; or would it simply preserve the historical practices in one or two parts of the country?
Mr. Woolas: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his lengthy intervention because inspiration arrived during the course of it. I am told that there are seven districts that hold elections by halves.
The principle that we are trying to put into the Billnot just in this part, but across the Billis that the route by which a decision is taken is the route by which it can be reversed. In cases where election is by halves, that would apply. Furthermore, given his experience in the Greater London Authority, the hon. Gentleman will be more aware than most that the electoral cycle for councils should take into account upper tier and lower tier authorities. In the Bill we are trying to encourage the creation of parish councils. I am not one of those who want huge ballot papers, so I hope that the House will bear with me on that point.
The new clauses and amendments follow the principles that I have outlined. They also put in place the necessary technical processes to allow the Electoral Commission to review district wards where changes to electoral cycles are being made. In short, the amendments will allow councils to have the flexibility that they need. I commend them to the House.
Mr. Syms: There is substantial consensus on the matter. As the Minister rightly said, trying to make a judgment about which is the best system can be inconclusive, to say the least. There are examples of extremely good authorities that are elected by thirds, by halves and by all-out elections. I have always had a preference for all-out elections, because that gives the electorate a manifesto, and a day when it decides who is to run the authority, or perhaps who to kick out, if the council has made a hash of it.
From the tone of the debate in Committee, it was clear that the Government, possibly because of a manifesto commitment, wanted to go in a particular direction, whereas we wanted authorities to have the option of going into reverse gear if they so wished. I agree with the Ministers remarks about the two thirds. Some cross-party co-operation will probably be necessary under the changed electoral arrangements. In some authoritiesWigan might be one of themthat might not make much difference in terms of political party, but for most authorities a two-thirds majority would require some acquiescence by the minority to change the electoral arrangements and to change back. The new clauses seem to be written in a perfectly sensible manner.
The Government set out their belief that whole council elections are generally the best route, so they are not giving such councils the opportunity to revert to election by thirds or halves. I accept that. The Government have moved some way to allay the concerns expressed in Committee. It is sensible that the dates are set some way ahead to allow for change. That would allow a political party that wished to campaign on the changed electoral arrangements to put those to the electorate. Broadly speaking, we are happy with the way that the Government are proceeding.
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