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Tom Levitt: I congratulate my hon. Friend on responding to the mood of the Committee, especially
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the mood on the Labour Back Benches during the Committee, where, as a 100 per cent. loyalist, I still felt the urge to be a rebel on these matters. It did not make sense to me that we should be able to move from one form of voting to another, but not the other way round. We are particularly flattered that it has taken no fewer than 40 amendments in the group before us to address our concerns.

One concern was that the situation in two-tier authorities had not been fully taken into account by the original drafting of the Bill. Derbyshire county has large single-member wards, and no one would argue that there should be anything but all-out elections every four years. However, I have been involved with local authorities at district level that have had all-out elections, and also with authorities that had elections by thirds, and there is something to be said for both systems. The all-out system provides consistency for at least four years, and if there is a mayoral system, the four-year system probably matches that and supports it better. On the other hand, a council that goes out by thirds allows a rolling programme, and non-catastrophic evolution. I use the word “catastrophic” advisedly. In High Peak we had all-out elections and lost nine seats on 3 May. Had we had elections by thirds, the outcome would be the equivalent of losing only three seats, which would not have looked quite so catastrophic.

That is a good reason why we should have been able to have elections by thirds—but in my book continuity wins out. I have served on a local authority that was elected by thirds—the same authority on which I sat with my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). Continuity and evolution are better than a possibly catastrophic pendulum swing every four years.

I have one or two questions to ask my hon. Friend the Minister, bearing in mind that very few councils have ever taken the opportunity that the existing law provides to change from one system to the other. My guess is that most councils are set up in a certain way and stay like that. If he is allowing only those that have once been elected by thirds and are now all-out to revert to thirds, how many councils is he giving that power to? It seems that only the local authorities that are currently all-out but once upon a time had election by thirds can go back. I am glad that the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) raised the question of halves. That was new to me, too. Can my hon. Friend say whether the same would apply in the case of halves? Would those authorities need to have had a different system in the past in order to qualify for movement between all-out elections and elections by part?

There is a worry that if councils are given a new right to go in the other direction, but only a handful of them would qualify to be considered, it is not much of a right. I am sorry to put my hon. Friend on the spot, but these questions are important. I hope that the 40 amendments will ensure that some councils have the option to move in the other direction, from all-out to halves or thirds, if that is what they choose, subject to the sensible provisos suggested by the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant).

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Andrew Stunell: I thank the Minister for responding to the debate in Committee which, as he said, was all-party and saw the need for a process that could work in either direction. I welcome the new clauses and amendments that he has tabled. Like the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt), I am disappointed that the provisions are restricted in their application. I shall comment on that in a moment.

First, however, I want to ask the Minister whether the difference in wording between the rules for halves and the rules for thirds is deliberate and, if so, why. New clause 39(1) states that a non-metropolitan district council in England can qualify, and new clause 41, which relates to election by thirds, allows a district council in England to qualify. In other words, election by halves is restricted to non-metropolitan districts, and the other case appears to apply to metropolitan districts. I would be interested to know whether that is a difference with a deliberate intention, or whether it will be subject to amendment in another place in due course. I favour the widest possible interpretation, so I prefer new clause 41 to new clause 39 in that respect. I look forward to hearing that that is the intention.

I asked the Library for a note on how many local authorities would be eligible, and it provided me with a list of the councils that had elections by thirds in 1974, which is the qualifying date. According to the Library, there were 114 such shire district councils, but it did not tell me how many of those changed at one time or another away from election by thirds to all-out elections. I hope that the Minister will provide that information—if not now, perhaps separately after the debate.

Although the concession is generous and the amendments to achieve it are lengthy, my concern is that it will apply to only a small number of local authorities. My disappointment is that the Government have not seen fit to make this a concession that any council could have—although in saying “any council”, I accept that, as the Minister said in introducing his amendments, our original wording, which included county councils and other upper-tier bodies, would not have been appropriate. I fully accept that our drafting was deficient in that respect. I want to see the Minister nudge forward a little bit on the possibility of a larger number of district councils being eligible. If he were to tell us in plain terms that there are 100 such councils, maybe I would not feel so concerned, but if, as I suspect, there are only about a dozen, this concession is not as worth while as it seems.

The Library list of 114 councils that had election by thirds in 1974 includes a number of councils that are now unitary authorities. For example, City of York council was a district council in those days, and it is now a unitary council. It was clearly set up as a unitary authority after 1974, and therefore although it appears to qualify under new clause 41(2)(a), it would apparently be disqualified under subsection (2)(b), which states:

I want to hear from the Minister whether, if a geographical area once had election by thirds, it still retains the capacity to go through the reversing act, if it wishes, even if its status as a council has changed. I have no information to the effect that City of York council has any intention of doing that, and I am simply using it to illustrate a case that might arise.

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Although we welcome the direction of travel, as we say these days, that the Minister has undertaken, I want him to travel further. If, as I fear, he has hardly opened the front door and got on to the garden path, it will be a major disappointment.

Andrew Gwynne: Like my hon. Friends the Members for Wigan (Mr. Turner) and for High Peak (Tom Levitt), I was one of the defenders of elections by thirds in Committee, and I am delighted that the Minister has tabled the amendments that we are discussing today.

I will not rehearse the arguments that I expressed in Committee. There are strong views on both sides. I think that elections by thirds works well in the two local authorities in my constituency, Tameside and Stockport. Tameside has four stars and “improving strongly” status under the strong leadership of Councillor Roy Oldham CBE.

The Minister has delighted me with these amendments. I have always rated him as an effective operator on the political field, and as a result he is a great Minister for Local Government. In Committee, he made great play of his devolutionary desires, which he has actually demonstrated. He has proved to be a listening Minister, too, because there was consensus across the Committee on this issue.

It is absolutely right to introduce the two-thirds majority safeguard to ensure that the powers are not abused by local authorities. In a council such as Tameside, where the controlling group has a two-thirds majority, the safeguard would not make much of a difference, but I realise that it would in most local authorities.

The Minister has been absolutely generous in respect of opportunities to move back. After a full council cycle, if a council resolves at a special meeting by a two-thirds majority to move back, it will be permitted to do so. That is much more generous than the provisions proposed by me, my hon. Friends the Members for Wigan and for High Peak and the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell). We thought that it would be more reasonable to have two cycles to allow the new system to bed down; two cycles would result in a period of eight years and three cycles would result in a period of 12 years. If a local authority sees that approach as a failure, the opportunity to move sooner is welcome.

I was going to raise the precise point mentioned by the hon. Member for Hazel Grove about non-metropolitan districts established under the Local Government Act 1972, which came into force on 1 April 1974, that have subsequently become unitary authorities. When those districts were non-metropolitan shire districts in a two-tier system, many of them were elected according to elections by thirds. On becoming unitary authorities, which gave them a new status and a new creation date, because they technically became new local authorities on the date on which the unitaries were created, many of them moved to all-out elections. If such local authorities wanted to elect by thirds, it would be wrong to prevent them from doing so. Like the hon. Member for Hazel Grove, I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Mr. Neil Turner: I, too, congratulate the Minister on introducing this excellent group of amendments in response to the constructive cross-party debate in Committee.

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We do not need to rehearse the arguments—it is finely balanced whether elections should be all out or whether they should be by thirds—because it is not really for us in this Chamber to make that decision, which should be made by councils and their local communities. What we need to do is to give councils and their local communities that opportunity, and I am grateful to the Minister for introducing the amendments, which will allow local authorities to take that decision.

I agree with the Minister that the two-thirds issue is important. I do not think that it is right that a local authority with a majority of 50 per cent. plus one should take that decision, because the issue would then become party political rather than a decision being made for the whole of the community. The hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) has suggested that there is a two-thirds majority on Wigan council, but we are not quite there yet; we had one gain last year and three gains this year, so a couple more gains next year will get us to that position. If we want to make changes, however, as a four-star authority we will put community consultation to the fore.

I join my hon. Friends the Members for High Peak (Tom Levitt) and for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) and the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) in saying that the measure appears to be slightly limited. The exclusion of the London boroughs is not a logical step. If a London borough wants to move from all-out elections to one-third elections, I cannot see why it should not have the opportunity to do so. It seems illogical to allow that in metropolitan districts but not in London boroughs. If we were truly devolutionary, it would be open to all local authorities to take that decision, in line with the wishes of their communities. I hope that the Minister will take that point back to the Department and have further discussions with his colleagues—perhaps he will introduce further amendments in the Lords. Nevertheless, the provision is a move forward, and I congratulate the Minister on it.

Robert Neill: I had not intended to speak on this group of amendments, but the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner) has stung me into action. I am sorry to disagree with his final point—I had thought that this year our only disagreements would relate to promotion and relegation, and I commiserate with him on the circumstances in which he finds himself in that regard.

Mr. Neil Turner rose—

Robert Neill: That does not mean that I am going to volunteer, on behalf of West Ham United, to make any change in our current situation.

I shall be careful not to try your patience, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I shall now move on. I urge the Minister to be cautious about the issue raised in relation to London—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I was merely unclear as to which sport the hon. Gentleman was referring to.

Robert Neill: You must have been to Upton Park on one of our bad days, too, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and experienced similar confusion.

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7 pm

I urge a note of caution with regard to London. I understand the devolutionary sentiment behind the comments of the hon. Member for Wigan, but one should balance that with the point made by the Minister, whose thinking I commend in this respect. Experience in the Greater London authority has shown the value of fitting elections into the cycle. The metropolitan districts are different because there is, in effect, a top-tier authority in the form of the GLA. A system that allows for some gap between the two tiers is generally well regarded in London.

Andrew Gwynne: It is entirely for the London boroughs to decide on this matter. However, before 1986 the metropolitan counties outside London had elections by thirds to the metropolitan districts, and in the fourth year, which is now the fallow year, elections to the metropolitan county councils such as Greater Manchester council. The London model could fit with election by thirds.

Robert Neill: Except for this difference: the metropolitan counties were abolished and have not been reinstated, so there is now a single-tier authority and a year off. That also happens in the case of one or two unitaries that were formerly metropolitan counties. The difference in London is that it is generally regarded as convenient to have the all-out election for the Mayor and the assembly, and then to have an all-out election for the boroughs halfway through the electoral cycle. I hope that the Minister will not consider any change in relation to London without considering the views of those in London local government. London has a unique local government structure and different considerations should therefore apply.

Michael Fabricant: This argument is interesting to me, because I do not come from a local government background. Would my hon. Friend care to speculate on why, given the fallow year that has been mentioned, the option of quarters was not discussed? Perhaps the Minister could explain that when he winds up. If the argument is that it is helpful to have elections every year, why have elections for three years and then in a final, fourth year have no election at all? Given that halves are an option used by seven district councils, why not have the option of quarters too?

Robert Neill: I am genuinely grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that interesting point, which had not occurred to me before. I can see an argument for it, although I am not aware that it has ever received much support among electors or the local government community. I hope that he will forgive me if I appear not to do justice to his intervention by saying that I can only leave it at that and return to my point about London, and the desire to have something that works well in the London context. I am not aware that any local authority or significant group of opinion in London would wish for a change in our current electoral arrangements.

Mr. Woolas: If members of the press or the public were ever to doubt that Members of Parliament know what they are talking about, they should read the Hansard record of the debate on these new clauses. I
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am tempted to say that the reason why we did not consider the option of quarters was to give the poor electorate a year off— [ Interruption . ] And the canvassers, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner) says. The real reason is traditional and historical. Areas had two tiers; in our area of Greater Manchester, the fallow year was for the upper tier. To meet the point made by the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant), we would have to reconsider the number of councillors per ward and move to four, or two or one. We could do that, but I do not think that he would want us to.

Andrew Stunell: As the Minister and I know, on the past three occasions our fallow year in Greater Manchester has been occupied with a general election, so we are never short of an election in our area.

Mr. Woolas: That is a point often made to me by the cross-party leaders of the 10 authorities in Greater Manchester. I suspect that the results would be better for us in both sets of elections were that not the case—but I will not be tempted down that road.

I am grateful to hon. Members for their response to the amendments, and will deal briefly with the points that have been made. The hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) mentioned our manifesto commitment. For the record, the manifesto required the Government to look at the Electoral Commission’s proposals on all-out elections. We have done that, so we have fulfilled the commitment. The manifesto did not commit the Government to moving to all-out elections, but gave that as a preference. Our debate has reflected that.

The hon. Member for Poole welcomed the requirement for a two-thirds majority, which provides more of a guarantee that a resolution would not be used in a partisan way, or by a small number of councils for tactical reasons. That principle is already enshrined, because in districts that have the power to request the Secretary of State to move to all-out elections, the resolution requires a two-thirds majority in the council. The hon. Gentleman mentioned whole council decisions. My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan put his finger on the main point, which is that this section of the Bill allows local authorities to decide. The research that the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) did in the Library and elsewhere teaches us something, although circumstances will change in future, given that councils know that decisions are in their own hands and are not subject to the decision of the Secretary of State, who may or may not agree with the resolution.

Tom Levitt: Is my hon. Friend saying that under the amendments, a council that has always had all-out elections has the right to choose to go to election by thirds? If not, such a council does not have the right to choose. My impression was that the amendments would give a council the right to move to thirds only if it had had that system at some time in the past.

Mr. Woolas: That is correct; I thank my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to clarify the position. I am on the front path, not out on the street, to use the analogy made by the hon. Member for Hazel Grove.

Tom Levitt: So why does my hon. Friend make that distinction between the two categories of council?

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