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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Local Elections (Ordinary Day of Elections in 2009) Order 2008

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Robert Key
Allen, Mr. Graham (Nottingham, North) (Lab)
Dorries, Mrs. Nadine (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con)
Dunne, Mr. Philip (Ludlow) (Con)
Healey, John (Minister for Local Government)
Love, Mr. Andrew (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op)
Main, Anne (St. Albans) (Con)
Morgan, Julie (Cardiff, North) (Lab)
Naysmith, Dr. Doug (Bristol, North-West) (Lab/Co-op)
Neill, Robert (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)
Rifkind, Sir Malcolm (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con)
Rogerson, Dan (North Cornwall) (LD)
Ryan, Joan (Enfield, North) (Lab)
Sheridan, Jim (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab)
Stunell, Andrew (Hazel Grove) (LD)
Touhig, Mr. Don (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op)
Watts, Mr. Dave (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Mark Etherton, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 28 October 2008

[Robert Key in the Chair]

Draft Local Elections (Ordinary Day of Elections in 2009) Order 2008

10.30 am
The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Local Elections (Ordinary Day of Elections in 2009) Order 2008.
I look forward to your chairmanship of the Committee, Mr. Key. I know that you have a local interest in the matters that we are discussing and am sure that you will follow proceedings from the Chair even more closely than normal.
The order proposes to move the date of next year’s local government elections in England from Thursday 7 May to Thursday 4 June, the same date on which elections will be held across the UK for the European Parliament. Shortly, an order under section 4 of the European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002 will be made to that effect.
The order will move the election date for 34 principal councils in England: the 27 county councils in the remaining two-tier areas and seven unitary councils. Those unitary councils are Bristol city council, Isle of Wight and the new unitary councils of Bedford, Central Bedfordshire, Cornwall, Shropshire and Wiltshire. It will also move the elections in about 75 parish councils across England and the elections in the Isles of Scilly. About 18 million people will be eligible to vote in the local elections, and about 2,000 seats will be contested.
In the case of the five new unitary councils, I recognise that moving that date will prolong the interim period between their establishment and the elections for their new leadership. On 1 April 2009, all the councils that are to be abolished, as Parliament approved earlier this year, will cease to exist and their councillors will cease to hold office. However, any councillors of the abolished authorities who sit on implementation executives or shadow executives, which are the bodies responsible for the transition to the new authorities, will continue to be full members of the executive. Those members of the councils that continue to exist, such as Wiltshire and Shropshire, will continue to be councillors until then. If they are members of the implementation executive, they will continue in that role.
To ensure that there is no perceptible fall-off in the functions required in that interim period in the new unitary areas, the new councils will also be able to co-opt, where appropriate, members of the outgoing district councils with particular expertise in areas such as licensing or planning so that they can discharge those functions up to the elections. Shortly, as a result of the detailed discussions that we are having with the authorities and their implementation executives, we will make regulations to permit that.
The order will also move the elections for directly elected mayors that are due in 2009 in Doncaster, Hartlepool and North Tyneside. Stoke would have had a mayoral election scheduled for the same date next year, but the people of Stoke voted last Thursday to move instead to a leader-and-cabinet system, which will be implemented in May 2009 in accordance with proposals drawn up by the city council. Therefore, there will be no mayoral election in Stoke next year.
The order will have no effect outside England as there are no local elections planned for councils in Scotland and Wales, and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will shortly introduce legislation for Parliament to approve the postponement of next year’s local elections in Northern Ireland in the light of a planned restructuring of local government.
I want to address the situation in Cornwall, which the hon. Member for North Cornwall will be particularly interested in. He, his colleagues and I have had a number of meetings on the situation we face there. We always knew that some matters that needed to be settled to draw up arrangements for wards and electoral representation in the new unitary council of Cornwall were likely to be complex. I am disappointed, however, that we face a particular problem there. We knew that there would be a tight time scale for the boundary committee’s work in putting the arrangements in place and the Electoral Commission then playing its part. Over the summer—the same time scale as in other areas—the county and its implementation executive had difficulty reaching a well-based view on the size of the new authority, which meant that the boundary committee’s work was made more difficult and put back.
While, in the end, it is for the boundary committee to decide the size of the new council, it found it difficult to proceed in the absence of a clear view from the implementation executive. However, those issues were resolved by mid-August, so I am equally disappointed that the boundary committee has not produced a draft recommendation—it confirms that it does not expect to do so until 2 December. The boundary committee is now working closely with all the interested parties in Cornwall, but that delay and the situation that we have to deal with are not serving the people of Cornwall well.
To achieve the best democratic arrangement, the strongest legitimacy, the shortest interregnum and the strongest credibility for the new arrangements, it is crucial that the onus now be on all political parties and councils in Cornwall to co-operate as fully as possible with the boundary committee, so that they can give the boundary committee and the commission the best chance to do the work that they need to undertake in the coming months. Over the last few days, I have spoken to the chair of the Electoral Commission, and the commission has now written to the Department setting out its intended timetable for beyond 2 December, which is when it plans to publish its draft proposals.
The Electoral Commission recognises that its timetable is tight, stresses that it needs to go through certain stages and expects to be able to make an order establishing electoral arrangements by the end of August. Like everyone else, I wish to see an election for the new authority based on new ward arrangements, and that suggests that an election could be held in late October at the earliest. I am therefore minded to introduce for consideration an order that would, exceptionally, move the election date for Cornwall from the beginning of June, as in this order, to the end of October 2009.
Before introducing such an order, I propose to take soundings and consult those affected in Cornwall, discuss the matter further with the boundary committee and the Electoral Commission if necessary, and confirm our intentions in due course. Although this order applies to Cornwall, the further order would deal specifically with the Cornish situation and defer elections to the soonest practicable date. I hope that that is helpful to the Committee and to those who are following this issue closely from beyond the House.
As elected representatives, we are all concerned about participation and turnout. As we set out in the consultation, one of the principal reasons for looking to combine the dates is our experience of the 2004 elections. In that year, both elections were held on 10 June and the result was significantly increased turnout. For the European elections of that year, voter turnout was 38.5 per cent. compared to 24 per cent. in the previous European elections. For the 2004 district council elections on that date, turnout was 41 per cent. compared to just 30 per cent. for the comparable elections held four years earlier.
Our consultation on moving the date closed in mid-August. We had 278 responses, which, as one would expect, included those from the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators and the Local Government Association, as well as responses from nearly 200 councils and a number of political parties. Few were opposed to the proposals for elections to be held on the same day. On 7 October, I placed a copy of our report in the House of Commons Library. The report summarises the consultees’ views, sets out the Government’s response to the issues raised and provides a rationale for the change.
I shall deal briefly with several of the issues. They are important for all of us who are concerned about the strength of our democracy and the clarity of the way it works for voters. The main concern was the potential complexity of having more than one election on the same day—the complexities of administration and, particularly, the risk of voters being confused.
Based on what the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators and those local authorities responsible for the elections said, I am confident that this draft order can deal with some of those problems. Some had very much in mind the experience of Scotland in 2007. However, our current legislation means that, whenever we combine polls—when there are two or more elections together—the ballot papers must be separate and in different colours, unlike in Scotland in 2007. That approach is supported by a number of the affected councils that responded to the consultation.
Despite the concerns that were raised, the results of the consultation were conclusive and on that basis we are moving forward to propose the draft order, which is supported by the great majority of those who responded to the consultation.
The draft order therefore makes provision to cover the issues that some were concerned about. It provides, as proposed by many of those who responded, for the European parliamentary elections in England to be administered by reference to the local authority area, not the constituency. It also provides that the local returning officer for those elections will be the person who administers local elections in that area.
The draft order also contains the necessary provisions to enable elections to parish councils to take place alongside the principal council and European elections in June. It extends the term of office for sitting councillors and mayors, and provides that, from 7 November, no by-elections will be required to fill casual vacancies on councils with elections in 2009, which the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst has been concerned about. It also provides for the annual meetings of joint authorities and parish councils to take place later than is currently required by statute to reflect that later election date.
In conclusion, the order is widely supported, and there are clear and compelling reasons to hold both elections on the same day. That is an approach that we took in 2004, and the evidence and experience of that year strongly support this move. I commend the order to the Committee.
10.44 am
Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Key, and I shall do my best not to detain you for too long.
My party was one of those that made written representations to the consultation and I broadly stand by what was said there. I am grateful to the Minister for a comprehensive introduction to the order—he dealt with a number of the issues.
On balance, the Conservatives have reached the same conclusion as the Government. Although, as a matter of principle, we are reluctant to see polls combined unless that is really necessary, given the practical issues that arise and the fact that the order addresses a number of concerns that colleagues and I have had, that test is met, so it is more practical and sensible to make the changes as suggested.
I was a participant in the 2004 combined London elections, as a candidate for the London assembly. There was a problem in that election with the high number of spoilt ballot papers, but lessons have been learned and there has been some forward movement. Because there are now different arrangements and different ways of dealing with things, which I hope have taken on board some of the problems that I experienced at first hand, we can move forward.
I note the Minister’s proposals on parish councils, which seem sensible. I raised the issue of by-elections because, although there is practical advantage in the certainty for returning officers and political parties offered by not changing the date, I have a problem with county divisions. I represented a multi-member local authority seat, so I know that a three-member ward can be managed for six months or so if there is a vacancy—the other two members can carry the case work, for example. However, it is more difficult to manage a single-member county division, and there could now be seven months in which that division was effectively disfranchised. That is my one concern, and I wonder whether it is an argument for keeping the six-month period.
There is also a concern about new unitary authorities: a nine-week interregnum may be a necessary, but that is not an entirely desirable state of affairs. I believe that the Minister and I agree that it is not desirable unless it is absolutely necessary. The idea of co-opting people who may, in effect, no longer have a full democratic mandate might be an ingenious and practical solution, but we should look at the practical detail of any future order on this matter.
I wish to ensure that we genuinely maximise democratic legitimacy during such a period, particularly because important decisions on the future running of those authorities might be taken, as you will know, Mr. Key. That has to be approached with a measure of caution. We are not going to make an issue of it today, but we should all keep an eye on it.
My final observation is on Cornwall. Again, I note what the Minister says, and it is unfortunate that the situation has arisen as it has. It is not satisfactory that the commission has found itself in such a difficult position, and perhaps it has not proceeded as swiftly as one would wish. The proposal could be an appropriate solution, but I should like to hold back on final endorsement until, again, I see the detail of any future order.
The one thing that I flag up to the Minister is the fact that he and I know what it is like to bang on doors at unpleasant times of year. The later in the year it is, the less pleasant elections are for candidates and, indeed, voters. That might be especially so in rural areas, and one could be knocking on doors in late autumn or in October as the nights are drawing in. I know that, historically, that happened frequently in general elections, but we have moved away from it in recent years. I hope that we think through the practical implications of conducting elections in sparsely populated rural areas when daylight hours are short.
Having made those observations, I do not need to prolong debate. As I made clear, we will not oppose the order.
10.48 am
Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Key. I apologise to the Committee for having a rather groggy voice this morning.
I begin by saying that it is right for the Minister to make an effort this morning to explain why the decision has been taken and what the process is. We all agree that we should seldom tamper with the timetable of democracy in this country and that any tampering needs to be well justified, and thoroughly discussed and debated. I thank the Minister for setting out as clearly as he did the factors that have been taken into account and the process that has been followed.
The alteration that the order introduces was facilitated by the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007—I had the honour of serving on the Public Bill Committee that considered that measure. I remember that serious concerns were expressed then about the powers that the Government would have to alter and vary dates. As a consequence of those concerns, the Government strengthened the consultation procedure and they have followed it rigorously—I have no complaint on that score.
On a small point, I note that it is recorded in the explanatory notes that no views were received from the national Liberal Democrat party. I attended the meeting at which the party agreed to the measure, and I do not know why that information did not reach the drafter of the explanatory notes. However, I want to make it clear that we support the change.
I have two or three questions that I am sure are simple to answer—I would not pose them if they were not. On article 4 and what it states about mayoral office, it is clear from that article and what the Minister has said that mayoral elections will take place on the same day as other elections. However, article 2 refers only to councillors in counties, districts and parishes. I seek the Minister’s assurance that despite the absence of the words, “mayor”, “mayoral” or “mayoral elections” in article 2, the legislation will achieve what he set out to the Committee.
The Minister mentioned the situation in Stoke. May I take it from what he said that since the town decided by a referendum not to have a mayor in future, there will be elections in Stoke, or will the existing council form an executive, as if it were already in existence? Perhaps he could clarify that matter. The Minister did not comment on the change of the basis of European election counts from a constituency one to a local authority one. Article 7(2)(a) refers to districts and counties. Will he confirm that that reference to districts includes unitaries, and that the wording encompasses all types of election? To express my point more clearly, not everywhere in the country has local government elections, but I assume that the changes to European election returning officer responsibilities will apply in, for instance, London boroughs, unitaries and other areas where there are no local elections. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that point.
The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst referred to the by-election issue. There will now be an additional five weeks of potential vacancy for by-elections. I would like the Minister to tell the Committee why it has been decided to go for the same date of 7 November, rather than rolling it forward, as one might have expected. In some places—not all that many—there will be parish, county and European parliamentary elections. Is the Minister satisfied that the public in those areas will be able to cope, and that returning officers will be able to cope with those circumstances? I am thinking not just of events on the day, but also matters relating to postal votes. Some of us endured the fiasco of the all-out postal votes in 2004 in the north-west, where some of my constituents were delivered ballot papers intended for Oldham. They were somewhat perplexed to say the least, and there were multiple cases of difficulty. It is not clear to me whether each returning officer in each local authority area will be responsible for postal vote dispatch within their areas. The lessons were learned very painfully in that election, as postal votes were sent throughout the north-west from one central spot, with all the—I am not sure whether this is a parliamentary phrase—cock-ups that followed, so it would be good to know that the issue has been dealt with.
I know that my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall hopes to catch your eye, Mr. Key, on the situation relating to the new unitary council of Cornwall. The Minister has set out his case, but I hope that he will also comment on the three other counties where there appears to be uncertainty about whether the elections will take place in full or in part. One is Devon, where some people expect some sort of unitary reorganisation to take place and have therefore made representations to me that those elections should not take place on the Euro day. It would be helpful to hear the Minister’s view, and learn whether he will return to the House to revise the dates and arrangements in Devon.
The other counties affected are Norfolk and Suffolk, where there is some discussion about which county the area known as Waveney—Lowestoft, in real life—will finish up in. Again, I should like the Minister to tell us whether he foresees the situation affecting the timetable in Norfolk and Suffolk. It is not acceptable for communities to be uncertain about whether they are going to have elections, or, if they are going to have elections, on what basis. If the various political parties, candidates and others are going to mount an effective operation to maximise turnout, the sooner that those uncertainties are resolved the better.
My party’s view is that it is right to bring the dates together, and we support the order, but I should certainly like to hear from the Minister the answers to the questions that I posed, so that out there, there is clarity about how local democracy is intended to function next year.
10.57 am
Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr, Key, as we discuss an issue that will affect many people throughout the country—not least my constituents.
The Minister rightly points out that we are talking about local elections not just in England, but in Cornwall. The situation there is a matter of great discomfort to many people across the parties and among independents, too. However, I should say that the Minister has given us a great deal of his time and taken a personal interest in trying to resolve the situation, and I am very grateful to him for doing so.
Nevertheless, I would like to clarify what has happened regarding the heel dragging of the boundary committee for England over the delivery of new boundaries within which an election can take place. It is perfectly true that the implementation executive—the cross-party organisation that involves people from district councils and the county council to manage the transition to the new authority—made a formal submission, but it is perfectly true also that some members of the executive made, on a cross-party basis, a minority submission for a much lower number of councillors.
That was a matter of great debate in the executive, and indeed in the councils and the wider community, but my understanding is that the boundary committee is responsible for making proposals, and the fact that two different submissions went forward does not really get it off the hook. It should have taken more prompt action to resolve the situation.
We have heard from the Minister that the issue was resolved with a further proposal in August, but we are approaching November and we do not have from the boundary committee even a set of proposals for consultation. That is very unfortunate. If the committee had been able to deliver in Cornwall, as it had promised to, we might have had local elections at the same time as everyone else—in June—and in similar circumstances. Perhaps our being able to do so is not entirely out of the question, but, as the Minister said, it is exceedingly unlikely.
Elections in October will present challenges, but the crucial thing is that the boundaries should be those that have the support of local people and their locally elected representatives on existing councils. There has been a strong feeling that 82—the current figure for Cornwall county council—is too low to allow the new authority to deliver its new responsibilities and roles. The new boundaries are therefore vital.
We are in an unfortunate situation and I am afraid that I must lay that at the door of the boundary committee. Although various submissions have been made and various aspects of information passed to the committee, it is its responsibility to sort them out and break the logjam, and it has failed to do so up to now.
The main challenge of fighting elections in October may be motivating people to come out to vote a year from now, but perhaps the Minister will say whether he and his right hon. Friends are considering holding any other elections at the end of next October, perhaps on a date that might encourage people to come to the polls.
On that note, it is unfortunate that we in Cornwall are in slightly different circumstances. I am usually happy for Cornwall to be given special status and considered slightly differently from places over the border, but on this occasion I think that it is unfortunate. I hope that the boundary committee will make every effort to resolve the problem and allow us to have elections in June along with the rest. If that is not possible, it is crucial that we have the new boundaries.
11.1 am
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