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7.45 pm

The amendments to the new clauses also complement amendments Nos. 11 and 13, which were tabled before the summer. Amendment No. 11 will ensure that a new ITA can be set up only when there is public consent for it. I have given two options for how that consent could be given. Firstly, the elected councillors on each local authority could agree a resolution. Secondly, there could be a referendum. The principle of local validation and local accountability is extremely important to the Opposition. Indeed, we might return to it if we ever get to the clauses that deal with road charging.

When we debated the creation of ITAs in Committee, I was not alone in thinking that the then Minister was not entirely convincing in trying to persuade us that the current constitution and membership details were bottom-up arrangements and would have the impact and effect that most Members required. Amendment No. 13 goes further, and I hope that the Minister will reflect again on the subject before we finish tonight. The amendment will ensure that only members appointed from among the elected members of the constituent councils will be able to vote in the ITA—that is, that only democratically elected members will be able to vote.

Amendment No. 13 goes further than the Government’s amendments, which, as we have discussed, say that the ITA can decide when and on what issues members may vote. I think that there is some support for amendment No. 13, which goes to the core of our democratic principles. We want ITAs to be democratically accountable bodies and it is therefore logical that the members of the ITA who are given the power to vote ought to have the mandate to do so by virtue of having been elected by local people to represent them and to take decisions on matters such as local transport.

With the new clauses, the Government have come a long way. They have left the starting blocks and are halfway around the track, and if they were to accept amendment No. 13 they would cross the finish line. I was not initially tempted to press amendment No. 13 to a vote, and I am probably persuaded that I should not. However, I hope that the Minister will consider the number of interventions from his own party and look again carefully at my wording. It will provide him with a way out and with the answer that his Back Benchers were looking for.

Let me turn to the other amendments in the group. Amendments Nos. 26 and 29 have been tabled by the Liberal Democrats, and amendment No. 26 is essentially the same as amendment No. 13. Amendment No. 101 is in the name of the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) and he states that the ITA will decide what matters non-elected members can vote on. I wonder whether that goes far enough in terms of what the House wants.

I agree with the Minister that amendments Nos. 151 to 153 appear to be purely consequential amendments. I certainly welcome amendment No. 156, which states
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that sections of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 that relate to political balance on local authority committees cannot be disapplied by order. I think that the Minister has given the clear explanation of amendment No. 157 that I would otherwise have sought. I am certainly looking forward to hearing the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley talk to amendment No. 64, because I am keen to hear exactly what he thinks that it will achieve.

Graham Stringer: My hon. Friend the Minister found himself in difficulties on this issue. I sympathise, because he walked into the job only very recently. I genuinely hope to be helpful by going through the issues as I see them. I hope that we can come to a resolution, if not now, then possibly in the other place.

When the metropolitan county councils were abolished, it became the constituent authorities’ responsibility to send members to the passenger transport authorities and other joint boards. After a lot of argument, it became clear that rules had to be applied to retain the correct political balance. At best, my hon. Friend was not clear about the fact that that political balance relates to the number of members sent to the PTA by the constituent districts. If, for example, there was a Labour majority of one in Wolverhampton, the district could not send three or four Labour delegates to the PTA; it had to be proportionate. That requires a little thought. Although the constituent authorities will do their best to send a proportionate balance of members to the PTA—or, in future, the integrated transport authority—it is likely that the final balance will not reflect the balance across the county.

If, as seems intended in new clauses 10 and 11, we reduce the number of council representatives on the integrated transport authorities to one per authority—that is the minimum—it becomes impossible to reflect the political balance in the county, unless the county is a statistical freak. There are difficulties to do with where we start. In Committee, we discussed holding direct elections or referendums to set up the bodies, but that is not what the amendments that we are discussing are about.

In new clause 10(5) and (6), there is both a prohibition on having non-elected members on an ITA, and a power giving ITAs the ability to waive that prohibition. It is not clear what the purpose is of providing for such members. I do not mind the 47 professors of transport that universities feel they need being on integrated transport authorities. I do not mind bus operators or passengers being on them, either. Discussion with those people would add to elected members’ knowledge. However, what is the purpose of allowing non-elected members to vote? I have not heard the Minister give any good reason for that.

I should like to query one statement of fact that the Minister made. He said that voting arrangements were determined locally. That is simply at odds with the facts. Local authorities cannot co-opt people with voting rights on to them. In fact, the right is jealously guarded. The Local Government Act 1972 got rid of aldermen, who had been there for ever—I mean, some of them, personally, had been there for ever. From that point on, all directly elected local authorities have been just that—they have had only elected members. That was the political balance. Where there are joint boards, an attempt is made to recreate that political balance on them. The
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one exception is police authorities. Historically, magistrates have long been seen as almost equal, if not equal, to elected members of such authorities, but all the other authorities have jealously guarded the situation.

I would therefore be fascinated to hear the objective, beyond that of providing expertise, behind allowing non-elected members. The Minister said repeatedly that elected members will be in a majority, but that is not really the point. Those of us who stand for election do so because we believe certain things. Often, parties believe different things; that is why their representatives stand for election. What matters is the political balance. If the Labour party or Conservative party has one representative on a body, that is the balance that matters, and not whether there are more elected than non-elected members.

I ask my hon. Friend to think about that, because as things stand—given the fact that the relationship between subsections (5) and (6) is ill-defined, and given that there is no clear stated objective—the process can change the political balance of the authority, and we do not know how long for; it may be for four years, or for one year. That can be done while elected members remain in a majority.

As the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) said, I attempted to define and address some of those issues in amendment No. 101. Having listened to the debate, however, I think that it does not go far enough. I certainly will not press it to a Division, but I look to the Minister at least to make a statement in the House saying that he will look into the issues with a view to ensuring that the political balance is maintained within authorities. What is proposed in the Bill is at best ill-defined. The provisions were introduced in response to comments made in Committee, and I accept the Government’s good will, but they could work to undermine essentially good proposals.

I cast the problem as being to do not just with members, but with the purpose of setting up integrated transport authorities; the Minister referred to that. In one sense, the purpose is to say, “Transport has probably not been considered as important as it should have been in the local democratic context, and we will give it a shove. We will have integrated transport authorities, and after consultation and once statutory instruments have been agreed to in this place and the other place, we will give them the ability to take highways powers away from local authorities.” If that is the purpose—to give a push to transport—one has to keep the scheme in the most powerfully democratic context that one can.

I have been on passenger transport authorities, and I have been on the Transport Committee, although I was not on it when I was a member of the Government. I believe in giving transport as much help as it can get, but there are competing interests that must also be part of the democratic process. If one is setting up a bus priority measure, shopkeepers, local residents and pedestrians will often have very different views about it. If the proposals in the Bill were agreed to, and those with special interests from the transport world altered the political balance, there would be less and less possibility of people who disagree with transport proposals gaining their point through the democratic process.

Mr. Truswell: Is there not another problem with the proposal—that it may fall victim to what I might call the Thatcher test? When faced with selecting people, the
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right hon. Lady often used to ask, “Are they one of us?” It is one thing appointing “one of us” to any sort of authority, but it is quite another to give that person a vote.

Graham Stringer: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend.

Transport proposals are often at the core of the most intense debate in local areas. In Greater Manchester a tremendous row is going on about the transport innovation fund proposals. A referendum on the matter has been proposed, but many of us believe that the question has been fiddled. Transport is not an easy subject, and to take it further from the democratic process may well be a mistake.

My final amendment does not focus on the detailed working and structure of integrated transport authorities and how they could be made fair, democratic and effective; it deals with how they are created. We had that discussion in Committee. The Government’s position is that ITAs should be created by statutory instrument, under the affirmative procedure because they fundamentally change the structure of local government. Highways powers will be changed, and borrowing powers may well be transferred to different authorities. People will be able to vote more easily to effect some policies as an elector if the proposals go ahead.

8 pm

One of the reasons that the local government structure is not as good as it should be is that these issues are extremely difficult to deal with. People have interests and they often have rows about boundaries and about the powers involved. When I proposed the super-affirmative process—the regulatory reform order—rather than a simple SI, the then Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton) made two points in Committee on 8 May.

One of those points was that the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee of the other place had concluded:

but that is not the same as saying that the proposals are better—that a regulatory reform order or a super-affirmative process would not be better, because the difference between a super-affirmative process and an ordinary SI, apart from the fact that if there is dissent, there can be longer debate on the Floor of both Houses, is that representations can be made directly to the Committee dealing with them and amendments can be made to the regulatory reform order before it is placed before both Houses. On issues that are highly controversial, that separate parliamentary pathway, with more consultation and more ability to amend, is better than an SI, which would be passed on a whipped vote, as the recent changes to Cheshire were.

The other defence deployed by my right hon. Friend was that SIs had recently been introduced for changing local government structure. If one thinks back to the rows and debates that took place about Cheshire, it seems that the system has not worked to the satisfaction of hon. Members or the electorate in Cheshire. People did not feel that they had been convinced.

I have spoken for longer than I intended, but in the debate at the start of this group of amendments we have unearthed something unsatisfactory as the Government
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try in new clause 10 to improve the process of setting up integrated transport authorities. I leave my hon. Friend the Minister with one final thought. If, by means of ITAs, we are trying to set up not good transport authorities with elected members who have a relationship with the electorate, but a process that is moving towards the quangoisation of transport, looking to the way that Transport for London has been set up in a completely different political context, it would be easy to interpret the provision as a way of saying that transport in the metropolitan areas, and possibly eventually in the shire counties or the unitary authorities if they go for the same structure, are on the way to being quangos, because we are creating an almost equal status for non-elected members as for elected members, with no clear idea of the purpose of their voting on that body.

Mr. Leech: I shall comment briefly on the proposed make-up of integrated transport authorities and the voting rights within them. It is clear that the Minister has considered the concerns expressed in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) and by other hon. Members about the political accountability of ITAs, but unfortunately the Government amendments do not go nearly far enough to allay those concerns.

The guarantee in the Government’s new clauses that each ITA would include at least one elected councillor from each local authority is not enough to guarantee political balance and the local accountability of the ITA. In his opening remarks the Minister was quick to argue that the Government were seeking not to dictate to local authorities on the make-up of the new ITAs and whether non-elected members had voting rights, but he was unable to give one example of a local authority or PTA that was asking for the power to include non-elected people in the ITA with voting rights.

The current arrangements for PTAs are hardly perfect, but at least they make some attempt to reflect the relative size of each local authority and its political make-up. In Greater Manchester, for instance, the Labour party recently lost control of the passenger transport authority, but that would almost certainly not have happened if the PTA were made up of one member from each local authority area. The temptation will be great for so-called independent members of ITAs to be selected by political allegiance, rather than because of their transport knowledge.

Surely, therefore, the most appropriate way forward is to ensure that any independently appointed members of the ITA have no voting rights. The Government can attempt to put as many restrictions in place as they want, but if they continue to insist on voting rights for non-elected members, they will seriously damage the accountability of each ITA.

Amendment No. 26 in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes seeks to restrict voting rights on the ITA to elected councillors appointed by individual local authorities, while allowing for independent members who have expertise in transport matters. It is right and proper that an ITA should benefit from the expertise and experience that some appointed members may be able to contribute. It is not right or proper, however, that those people should exercise votes. The only people who should have voting rights are elected members of an ITA’s constituent council. Those members
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are the only ones truly accountable to the local people on whose behalf decisions relating to transport matters are made.

Rob Marris: I am following what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but it appears to contradict his amendment No. 26, to which he has just referred. The amendment says that

In the Chamber tonight, the hon. Gentleman appears to be enunciating a principle, which I quite understand; his amendment, however, seems to straddle that principle somewhat. Which is his position?

Mr. Leech: Ideally, we would take the position that there should be no voting rights for unelected members; I suspect that an ITA would never agree to give voting rights to a non-elected member anyway. However, to try to get the Government’s support on this matter, we are pushing an amendment that simply gives the opportunity for local authorities to restrict those voting rights.

Although the Government’s new clause 10 heads in roughly the right direction, it does not guarantee accountability. It is not acceptable to put the question of whether an ITA is accountable directly into the ITA’s hands; that runs the real risk that an ITA will appoint a large number of co-opted members—little more than party stooges—who would then have the power to thwart the wishes of the electorate and the local community. The Government have a duty to safeguard local democracy, not to threaten it as they are currently doing with this element of the Bill. I shall be slightly bolder than the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) and push amendment No. 26 to a Division.

Mr. Betts: I should like to make four big points. First, we have to be careful about the use of the term “political balance”. Although it is possible to ensure that each constituent authority within an ITA area is required to propose representatives who reflect the political balance of their council, it is not possible to construct a system under which all the authorities together are taken as a whole and the political balance of the ITA reflects their total political composition. There cannot be a mechanism for doing that, because there would be nobody to oversee it. There is no way in which we can do it, and we must be careful about that. Currently, under the passenger transport authorities, each local authority selects its members to the transport authority on the basis of the political balance in that authority—and that, I suggest to the Minister, is also how things will have to be done with ITAs.

Secondly, it would help if the Minister said that there would be an attempt to balance representation on grounds of population within local authority areas as well. Currently, there are big differences in population among authorities that constitute passenger transport authorities, and the membership of the PTAs reflects that. I hope that that will be carried through. Obviously, Sheffield is the largest authority in south Yorkshire and if we had an extended ITA for that part of the country, I would like that fact to be reflected. We could end up with a mix of met and non-met districts forming a new ITA in which the differences in population size between the authorities would be even bigger.

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Thirdly, I turn to the issue of votes for unelected members. In the end, the arguments are pretty persuasive. There is no good reason in principle why unelected members should have the same votes as those on the same authority who are elected. Nevertheless, in moving as far as they have, the Government may well have been helpful. In the vast majority of circumstances, no group of elected councillors on an ITA will award the vote to people who are not elected; they would not share their democratic entitlements in that way. The only time when that might happen is when people want to play political games—when, for example, the majority on an ITA think that they are going to lose power and seek to appoint like-minded people to positions as non-elected members and then give them the vote.

I think, however, that the Minister has already said that the decision on whether non-elected members should have a vote on the ITA should come up after each local authority election at the very least, so that it could be repeated. Indeed, there was some suggestion that the voting members on the ITA might be able to vote on the rights of non-elected members at any time. That might deal with the problem.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): I agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said so far. Is not the problem that the Government are standing too far back? They should be saying that setting a framework within which everyone had to operate would in no way affect local accountability. That framework should be designed to prevent abuse and ensure democratic accountability.

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