Draft Local Authorities (Conduct of Referendums) (England) Regulations 2012

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Annette Brooke 

Afriyie, Adam (Windsor) (Con) 

Barwell, Gavin (Croydon Central) (Con) 

Bebb, Guto (Aberconwy) (Con) 

Bell, Sir Stuart (Middlesbrough) (Lab) 

Benn, Hilary (Leeds Central) (Lab) 

Blackwood, Nicola (Oxford West and Abingdon) (Con) 

Blears, Hazel (Salford and Eccles) (Lab) 

Blomfield, Paul (Sheffield Central) (Lab) 

Crabb, Stephen (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con) 

Dakin, Nic (Scunthorpe) (Lab) 

Hart, Simon (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con) 

Kelly, Chris (Dudley South) (Con) 

Simpson, David (Upper Bann) (DUP) 

Spellar, Mr John (Warley) (Lab) 

Stunell, Andrew (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government)  

Twigg, Derek (Halton) (Lab) 

Vickers, Martin (Cleethorpes) (Con) 

Wright, Simon (Norwich South) (LD) 

Simon Patrick, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

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First Delegated Legislation Committee 

Tuesday 24 January 2012  

[Annette Brooke in the Chair] 

Draft Local Authorities (Conduct of Referendums) (England) Regulations 2012 

9 am 

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Andrew Stunell):  I beg to move, 

That the Committee has considered the draft Local Authorities (Conduct of Referendums) (England) Regulations 2012. 

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mrs Brooke. I offer my commiserations to the hon. Member for Scunthorpe and my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central, both of whom have pledged to listen to my every word. 

The regulations form part of a series of statutory instruments. The others relate to the specific circumstances of particular cities, but the Local Authorities (Conduct of Referendums) (England) Regulations 2012 are purely technical and set out how referendums are to be held. They provide for the conduct of referendums in relation to whether a county council, district council or London borough council should change its existing governance arrangements to different executive or non-executive governance arrangements. 

These regulations replace the Local Authorities (Conduct of Referendums) (England) Regulations 2007. In large measure they simply replicate the 2007 provisions with which councils and their returning officers are already familiar. These are the basic rules for the conduct of any governance referendum. In addition, as necessary, these regulations update the 2007 provisions. They do this particularly to reflect the changes that the Localism Act 2011 is making to local governance. 

In essence, the 2011 Act implements the Government’s policy of extending the governance options available to local authorities by adding the committee system to the existing executive models set out in the Local Government Act 2000. It will therefore now be open to local authorities to operate one of the following governance models: first, the mayor and cabinet executive model; secondly, the leader and cabinet executive model, which already applies in England; thirdly, the committee system; or fourthly, prescribed arrangements. 

Prescribed arrangements are those that have been set out by the Secretary of State in regulations. This provision has not been used to date, but it is in the regulations so that if an authority feels that it has an alternative model, which is not included in those set out, and which it feels would benefit it, the Secretary of State can have regard to those proposals. The fourth provision—prescribed arrangements—allows them to come into force if they are deemed appropriate. 

Part 1A of the 2000 Act, as inserted by schedule 2 of the Localism Act 2011, provides for local people to have a say on the governance model adopted by their local

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authority via a referendum in certain circumstances. The result of such a referendum is binding on the local authority concerned. There are four circumstances under which a local authority would hold a referendum on its governance arrangements. First, if it is triggered by a valid petition signed by local people; secondly, if the authority itself chooses to hold a referendum; thirdly, if an authority wishes to move away from a governance model that was itself approved through a referendum—in other words, if it has been established by a referendum, it can only be changed by a referendum; and fourthly, if an authority is required by order to conduct a referendum. It is this final situation that will be the subject of debate when members of the Committee consider the draft orders to be made under section 9N of the 2000 Act, specifying the local authorities that are to hold a referendum on whether they should adopt the mayor and cabinet executive. 

Mr John Spellar (Warley) (Lab):  To clarify, would it, therefore, be possible to have a petition, signed by the relevant number, against having a mayor and for having a referendum to return to the previous system? I do not mean by the council, as I understand is happening in Stoke, but by the electorate. 

Andrew Stunell:  I am happy to outline the situation, but I may return to that later. Stoke is entirely different: it used a governance model established by a particular piece of legislation, and the change was secured by the passage of further legislation under the previous Government. An analogy with Stoke is not therefore appropriate. Broadly speaking, particularly in relation to the referendums for mayoral ballots that we are discussing, such referendums are not reversible without further legislation. I will return later to the situation of mayors created under the existing system. 

Mr Spellar:  The Minister has laid stress on the ability of local people—rightly—to influence the outcome. Why has he therefore made mayorships in several cities irreversible and not subject to the normal procedure? What is the reasoning behind that? 

Andrew Stunell:  If I recall correctly, the hon. Gentleman raised a similar point in our discussion in Committee about the mayoral referendum for Birmingham. In that sitting, one of my hon. Friends asked him whether he had supported the Government’s creation of the Mayor of London, and he replied that of course he did. I remind him that the same is true of the Mayor of London—once created, such an office can be uncreated only by primary legislation. 

The regulations simply reflect the changes made by the Localism Act. They provide for the inclusion of questions about whether a local authority should adopt the committee system and whether a local authority, as specified in an order made under section 9N of the 2000 Act, should adopt the mayor and cabinet executive. In addition, the regulations update the 2007 regulations in four ways. First, they will remove references to the now abolished mayor and council manager model. 

Secondly, on the basis of the Electoral Commission’s advice and expertise, the regulations will update and improve the questions to be asked in a governance

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referendum. The questions are set out in schedule 1, and the ballot papers are reproduced in schedules 3 and 5. We consulted the independent Electoral Commission, which undertook a public consultation on the referendum questions in schedule 1 and on the ballot papers. As a result of that consultation, the Government have adopted the questions and the form of ballot papers exactly as recommended by the commission. A report of the commission’s views has been placed in the Library of the House of Commons for Members who wish to refer to it. The questions to be asked of the electorate are on page 3 of the regulations. 

Thirdly, the regulations will remove the unnecessary prescription in relation to how local authorities publicise information about referendums—for instance, about the date and the question to be asked. For example, under the 2007 regulations, local authorities are currently required to publish such information in one or more local newspapers. However, under these regulations, it will be for each local authority to decide the best method for ensuring that this information is brought to the attention of local people, which is a change that I am sure hon. Members will agree brings these regulations further into line with the Government’s localism agenda. 

Finally, provision has been made in regulation 10 to add the election of a police and crime commissioner under section 50, “Ordinary elections”, or section 51, “Election to fill vacancy in office of commissioner”, of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act 2011 to the list of elections with which a poll at a governance referendum may be required to be combined. 

For those hon. Members who are not well versed in the rules about the conduct of referendums, I will summarise the main provisions of the regulations. As I have already mentioned, regulation 3 and schedule 1 set the form of words of the question to be asked in a governance referendum. 

Regulation 4 requires a local authority to fulfil certain publicity requirements relating to the referendum and imposes certain time limits by which notice must be given. 

Regulation 5 imposes restrictions on the material that may be publicised, displayed or distributed by and on the behalf of a local authority in the period beginning 28 days before the referendum. 

Regulation 6 sets the expense limit on the amount that may be incurred in referendum expenses. That limit will be the aggregate of £2,362 and the amount found by multiplying by 5.9p the number of entries in the relevant register. Hon. Members may recognise it more as £2,300 to start with and 5.9p per elector—I think we are all familiar with that type of calculation. As is currently the case, exceeding the referendum expense limit constitutes a criminal offence. 

Regulation 10 makes provision for the combination of polls at governance referendums with the polls at other referendums and elections. 

Regulations 15 to 17 make provision for a governance referendum to be challenged by interested parties and provision about the effect of an election court ruling. 

Schedule 3—“The Local Government Finance Act Referendums Rules”—sets out the detailed rules to be followed when conducting a stand-alone governance referendum. That includes the rules on the content of

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ballot papers and other voting forms, the operation of polling stations, the counting of votes and the declaration of results. 

Schedules 4 and 6 apply, in some cases with necessary modifications, existing electoral law to the conduct of governance referendums. That includes the provisions of the Representation of the People Acts 1983, 1985 and 2000 and the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. 

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con):  To return to the previous point, £2,362 or 5.9p per entry on the electoral roll is quite a low figure when it comes to running a referendum campaign. Will the Minister expand on that and also say a few words on how that figure is increased over time? 

Andrew Stunell:  I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I hope it was understood that the amount is £2,300 plus 5.9p per elector on the roll. Depending on the size of the local authority, the sum will be significantly more than that figure. On updating, he may be aware that the House considers from time to time the expenditure limits for various elections. I am sure that future Secretaries of State will, when appropriate, make proposals to the House so that it can consider whether the limits are still appropriate. I should also make it clear that the expense limit applies to each organisation’s campaigning; it is not the global limit for all expenditure on a referendum. 

To conclude, schedule 5—“The Local Government Finance Act Referendums (Combination of Polls) Rules”—sets out detailed rules, similar to those in schedule 3, to be followed when the poll at a governance referendum is to be combined with one at another referendum or election. In short, the regulations provide the rules needed to ensure effective administration of referendums and a system in which the electorate can have complete confidence. They follow a well tried practice, which has simply been updated for today’s circumstances and the particularities of mayoral referendums. The referendum questions are exactly as recommended by the Electoral Commission. I am confident that the regulations will ensure efficient and effective administration of any governance referendum, and I commend them to the Committee. 

9.16 am 

Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab):  It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Brooke. As well as having the pleasure of being here in person to hear the Minister’s contribution, I look forward to reading all his speeches on all the debates on all the mayoral orders. 

As the Minister acknowledged, the order’s context is the Localism Act and the fact that the regulations will apply to the 11 mayoral referendums that the Government say must be held. Members are only too aware that local government operates a various systems in different places. We believe that elected mayors can offer a highly effective form of local leadership. 

The Minister acknowledged that when we were in government, we gave local councils and local people the power to choose to elect a mayor if they wanted one. Under the legislation that we introduced, local communities can decide whether to hold a mayoral referendum and they can petition their council for one. Councils themselves

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can ask the people what they think by holding a referendum, or they can proceed straight to a mayoral election by using their two-thirds majority vote. That power was used by Leicester council, and it resulted in a positive vote in favour of electing a mayor. The structure ensures that local people are in charge of the process and the outcome of their system of government in their own area. 

Members will be aware that during the passage of what is now the Localism Act, the Government had to withdraw their extraordinarily undemocratic plan to impose shadow mayors as a result of Opposition pressure and concern expressed in the other place. As my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) said during the debate on the Lords amendments, the proposal to order a move to an elected mayor and cabinet, and the power to impose shadow mayors, was one of the most controversial in the Bill. 

To be fair to the Minister, in Committee last week, he was frank in admitting that the Government had got this spectacularly wrong, as I would describe it, or that, in his slightly more cautious words, their approach “might not be appropriate.” Imposition has not completely disappeared. In her contribution, my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North went on to say: 

“I note that the Government are retaining the power to order an authority to hold a referendum on the subject because clearly they do not trust local councils”.—[Official Report, 7 November 2011; Vol. 535, c. 93.] 

In the individual mayoral orders, which this order supports, the Government wish to compel local authorities to hold referendums on introducing a mayor. By contrast, we believe that local people should decide whether to hold one, and if they decide to do so, they should then decide whether they want an elected mayor. 

The Government are never backward in talking about their passionate commitment to localism, but they appear to come to a juddering halt when it comes to forcing referendums on people in these 11 cities. Not only is the imposition the antithesis of pure localism, it is very different from the arguments advanced by two Ministers from the Department for Communities and Local Government when they were in opposition. Before the elevation of the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) to his present ministerial position, he said: 

“I would prefer that the Government did not prescribe the governance system for councils at all. I would prefer that it was left for them to decide in a broadly devolutionary fashion” 

Later in the same debate, the hon. Member for Hazel Grove, said: 

“I want to make the pure gospel point that governance should be entirely a matter for local councils”––[Official Report, Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Public Bill Committee, 20 February 2007; c. 251-269.] 

I think gospel has lost its way slightly between the hon. Gentleman making that comment and his taking ministerial office. 

It would be helpful, with regard to the draft regulations, if the Minister explains how he reconciles his professed commitment to localism with legislating to require these referendums. As we know, in all the cities subject to the 11 orders, there are a range of views, some of which

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were on display when the Birmingham referendum order was discussed last week. Some people are in favour, and some against; that is local democracy. 

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con):  As a Leeds Member, perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would like to explain whether he favours one in his own city. 

Hilary Benn:  I am not persuaded by the argument for one in Leeds, and it is fair to say that nobody in Leeds has approached me and said, “I really think we ought to have an elected mayor.” If we look at the success of Leeds over the past 25 years, mainly under a Labour administration, but not exclusively, it would be hard to say that the economic development of the city—its prosperity, the businesses that have come in, and the way it has grown and developed—has been hampered by the absence of one. I recognise, however, that in other cities people may take a different view. If people want a mayor, that is great, and that is why we gave people the power, but if people do not want a mayor, a referendum should not be forced on them. 

Mr Spellar:  What I find interesting is that it is not only about members of the Labour party, although we are the dominant party in most of these cities, and I will refer to that in my contribution. However, members of both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties are often united with their Labour colleagues in opposing such ideas. Labour Members are speaking for the great majority in many of those areas, although there are varied views. It is interesting that Government Members and Ministers seem to want to impose their views not only on Labour voters out there, but on their own voters. 

Hilary Benn:  That is indeed the argument that I am advancing. It should be a local decision. My right hon. Friend makes the point that in different places, people involved in different parties have a wide range of views. Some cities have already consulted on this matter, and there was not much enthusiasm. Precisely because of that position, the right thing is to trust local people and councils to decide whether they want to initiate a referendum. One looks around the country and sees some extremely successful mayors—one or two are not so successful—and the same is true of a council leader model. That proves that effective leadership is the single most important quality that we should be looking for in local communities, and that is why the decision about whether to hold a referendum on a mayor should not rest here in Westminster, but with local councils and electors. 

On costs, I read with interest what the Minister said last week. Since he was able to tell the Committee with great precision that the total cost would be £2,581,000, he might find that it is not too difficult to write a cheque out in advance to the local authorities that will hold them. Moving on to the detail of the draft regulations, as we have heard, they mainly replicate the 2007 regulations, but with some updating, especially in the light of the consultation and the advice given by the Electoral Commission. I agree with the Minister that the draft regulations are broadly uncontroversial, although different views were expressed in the consultation about the form of the question. Some argue that it should be a yes/no

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answer on the proposed change, as opposed to the model that is set out here, but the Electoral Commission considered that carefully and the Government have adopted its recommendations. 

I was also interested in what the Electoral Commission had to say when it published its views in October about the level of public awareness, which is an important issue for all of us. In paragraph 3.11 of its report, “Referendums on local authority governance in England”, it said: 

“One of the main issues identified by our research was the generally low level of knowledge and understanding among members of the public about the ways in which local authorities are run.” 

It also said that respondents wanted more information before making their decision, particularly the implications of the proposed change for getting things done, listening to people and cost. Those are important considerations that need to be taken into account. 

I have a question for the Minister about referendum petitions that question a result. The regulations allow for petitions to be submitted on different grounds, one of which, in regulation 20(1)(a), appears simply to be that the votes have been incorrectly counted. It would be helpful if the Minister confirmed that that is the case. The basis for a petition on those grounds, unlike, for example, regulation 20(1)(d) about alleged corruption, does not require the leave of the High Court for submission. A petition is then, under the provisions of the order, to be tried by an election court. The order seems to say—I would be grateful for the Minister’s confirmation—that in such cases, in effect the local authority must not act on the result until the court has ruled. 

On the face of it, that seems to give anyone unhappy with the result a chance to delay, including on what might be regarded as spurious grounds. I read the order carefully. Given that it may take time for the election court to meet, will the Minister reassure us that, whatever the outcome of a referendum result, it would not be possible under the order for someone to mount a challenge on spurious grounds, in the hope of eating up time before the election court can be assembled, and that in those cases any election petition could be dealt with swiftly? 

Having made that point, unlike in the case of individual mayoral orders, which we opposed for the reasons I have set out, we will not seek to divide the Committee on these regulations, because in essence they are the rules that apply to all referendums, including those that local people or local councils decide they wish to have, as opposed to being told that they must. 

Several hon. Members  rose  

The Chair:  Before I call Adam Afriyie, I point out to Members who will speak that this morning we are debating proposed questions and other arrangements for referendums as specified in the draft regulations. 

9.27 am 

Adam Afriyie:  I seek a few points of clarification, and will not delay the Committee for long. Returning to the issue I raised in my intervention on the expenses available during a referendum, by my quick calculation they appear to equate broadly to approximately £40,000 for a local area campaign, and perhaps £15 million or

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£16 million for a national campaign. Will the Minister confirm, if more than one referendum were held on one day, that those limits would be multiplied accordingly, depending on the number of referendums. 

Secondly, will the Minister clarify the difference between the referendum expenses and money available for campaigning? I understand they are in separate categories. Will he say a word on that? Finally, given that there is greater latitude, as there should be in the modern age, on how a local authority may advertise a referendum, will he clarify whether there would be greater opportunities for a legal challenge on the basis of the form of advertisement, whether online, on electronic billboards, posted through letter boxes or in a local newspaper? 

9.29 am 

Mr Spellar:  As the Minister rightly outlined, this proposal draws its authority from the slightly misnamed Localism Act 2011. It seems to take a Fordist approach that one can have any colour as long as it is black. What is interesting about the composition of this Committee is that there is not one Government Member from an area that will be affected by the measure. That seems to indicate a lack of interest on the Government’s part, or perhaps they hope to be represented by Members who are not so aware of the issues within these cities and who therefore may take a more conformist attitude to the proposals that the Government have introduced. 

Indeed, as has already been outlined in the debates on certain cities, there is a considerable impact on people in the surrounding boroughs, which are often part of the metropolitan counties. [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Croydon Central, who is keen to get off the mark on this but who sometimes lays himself open to counter-attack, as we found with the Birmingham measure, rightly points out that the hon. Member for Dudley South is sitting on the Government Benches. It would be interesting to know the views of the electors and the councillors in Dudley on the proposals on Birmingham. 

One of the problems with these measures is that the mayors’ powers are unspecified. Many of the submissions to the Government on the outcome of the referendums are to do with the powers that those elected mayors should have. For the hon. Member for Dudley South and for his councillors in Dudley, the issue of west Midlands transport is pertinent, as people in Birmingham are proposing that, if there were a successful referendum in Birmingham, the elected mayor would take the chairmanship and the lead on that, and be, in their own words, “first among equals”. 

The Minister has quoted extensively from the consultation, and there has been an interesting exchange between him and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr Godsiff) on precisely that subject. The Government would be keen, as of right, for Birmingham to be first among equals. Birmingham has a major influence in the west midlands, but there is a west midlands board, comprising the boroughs of Coventry and Solihull, as well as the boroughs of the black country, all of which have a strong interest. I would be happy to give way to the hon. Member for Dudley South, if he wishes to indicate his personal preference, or the views of the Conservative group on Dudley council, on that. I think that the answer is self-evident from his failure to respond. 

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The question that will be posed is an important issue. It is put down as a simple question—you rightly identified, Mrs Brooke, that the key part of this debate is about the question—but there are a number of assumptions behind it that are utterly untested and, in various Committees, have been found to be as yet unresolved. If they are unresolved in this Committee and in the Government, how will they be resolved before the voters have to make an important decision? The matter, subject to further legislation in the House, is effectively irreversible, which is a further interesting aspect of the measure. 

The Minister rightly drew attention to the wide variety of possibilities open to councils and to the ability of the voters in those areas to influence those decisions. Strangely, for certain areas, he believes that only one model should work. Birmingham has, after all, as has been discussed, had an indicative referendum on precisely this subject. It is not as if this is just the view of some members of the political class in Birmingham. The voters of Birmingham were consulted, and they rejected the option of an elected mayor. Through the crafting of these regulations, it seems that the attitude of the Minister and his Department is that the citizens of Birmingham and the other great cities of this country can vote, vote and vote again until they get the answer right. However, once they give the answer that he wants, it is locked in stone and is irreversible. 

The Minister drew attention to London. Indeed, he referred to an exchange between him, the hon. Member for Croydon Central and me on the Mayor of London. As an erstwhile good Minister, I voted for the then-Government-led legislation. However, I did point out that, in an area where the hon. Member for Croydon Central had influence, he had, in fact, signally failed, as he confessed in Committee, to persuade his fellow Conservatives in Croydon, which had been Conservative-controlled for some time, to go for an elected mayor. 

London does not offer a good analogy with the proposal that we are discussing under the regulations, because the model there was not about an existing authority with an established pattern of government, but the creation of a new body. The Minister might explain whether particular arrangements will be made or whether further arrangements could be made under the measure, as he prescribed—although he has said that, in such circumstances, it would be with the agreement of the local authority. 

In the case of a new body, it would be reasonable to introduce a proposal because there was no established pattern of government, and to put it to a referendum. That is different from saying under the order to the citizens of Birmingham that they must hold a referendum. Considerable sums of public money could be much better spent. In other Committees, the Minister described the financial arrangements. Frankly, he thinks that he has made it clear, but the borough officers of some councils are less clear about the reimbursement for the referendums to the local authorities. It is not that DCLG will pay for it, but that the local council will pay for it and will then seek reimbursement from the Department. It is not clear that it will be reimbursed fully or whether there might be arguments about the level of reimbursement. 

We understand that the Department is in discussion with the returning officers of the councils, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central

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(Hilary Benn), the shadow Secretary of State, will be interested if the Minister can be definitive about the arrangement and ensure that the councils are reimbursed promptly—not six months later after prolonged discussions. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman got into an altercation with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) in a previous Committee, when he said that Birmingham was all right because it had sizeable reserves for dealing with such matters. 

While we are dealing with the narrow regulation, the voters who will be asked to decide on the proposal are left with considerable uncertainty. We have about another nine borough Committees at which to explore issues further, and we will listen closely to what the Minister says so that we have a clear view of the Government’s proposals for reimbursement and, significantly, whether the voters in various cities have a clear understanding of the position so that they can make an informed decision about the powers that they will have. 

Let us be clear what the proposal is really about. It is about the fact that the Conservatives have been mainly wiped out in the great cities. The coalition is trying to hang on in one or two places, but they know that they will lose power in all of them, and the order is a desperate attempt to claw something back after the council elections, in which they will quite deservedly be thrashed. 


The Chair:  I call Simon Wright, who I am sure will address the regulations. 

9.39 am 

Simon Wright (Norwich South) (LD):  Thank you, Mrs Brooke. I will certainly try to do that, and I shall also try to be brief. 

I wish to add a comment to those of the hon. Member for Warley on the question outlined in schedule 1, paragraph 1: “How would you like” your council “to be run?” The question is about the governance of the council, but the options are explained in terms of the process by which that individual, whether leader or mayor, is actually selected. I appreciate that, as the Minister has said, the question is exactly as recommended by the Electoral Commission. I would, however, like to hear his comments on why the options that are presented do not make any attempt to contrast the range of powers and competencies of a leader as opposed to a mayor, but instead concentrate entirely on whether that person is elected by the public or by councillors. 

9.40 am 

Andrew Stunell:  I thank hon. Members and my hon. Friends who have contributed to the debate. I was very pleased to see the right hon. Member for Leeds Central, and now that he has tasted the flavour of these events I am looking forward to seeing him at a great many more over the next couple of weeks. He made a number of points, some of which, I must say to him gently, were made in precisely the same words during preceding debates. 

Hilary Benn:  A good argument. 

Andrew Stunell:  A good argument does not necessarily have to be repeated every time, and a bad argument certainly should not be. The right hon. Gentleman quoted me as saying that I was a believer in the “pure

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gospel” of localism, and I am pleased that my words are so famous. That is what I believe, and it is what I and the Government have practised. The right hon. Gentleman said earlier that we should “trust local people,” but it is difficult to understand how refusing to hold a referendum, as he suggests, is trusting local people. He also suggested that we were imposing a mayoral system on cities, which is absolutely not the case. 

Hilary Benn:  I said no such thing. I talked about the imposition of a referendum, not of the decision. 

Andrew Stunell:  I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has made that clarification, and I would like to connect it with what the hon. Member for Warley said about the electors of Birmingham. He spoke in the same vein not only during this Committee but at previous rehearsals for this event, saying that the people of Birmingham had been consulted and had decided that they did not want a mayor, so our suggesting that they might be asked again showed some contempt of them. He did not tell the Committee the outcome of that referendum, however, and it is perhaps useful to make sure that this point is understood. 

The referendum was held in September 2001— 10 years ago—and in the light of the following information, the right hon. Gentleman might say that people’s views have changed since then. What did the citizens of Birmingham say 10 years ago? There was a turnout of 30.8%, which is not unreasonable, and 220,151 votes were cast. Of those, 46.4% were in support of a leader and cabinet form of constitution, 40.2% were in support of a mayor and cabinet form of constitution, and 13.3% were in support of a mayor and council manager form of constitution. In other words, of the 220,000 people who were motivated to go and vote, 53% voted for a model that included a mayor. 

Birmingham city council adopted a leader and cabinet, which came into effect in December 2001. Whatever the right hon. Gentleman may think about the strength of feeling in Birmingham, on the only time it was tested, a majority of electors who chose to vote supported one kind or another of mayoral model. 

Mr Spellar:  I fully understand the desire of a Liberal Democrat Member to introduce preferential voting and a change to the voting system, but in this country the candidate, or indeed the proposition, who gets the most votes, wins. 

Andrew Stunell:  Let us try that on 3 May with the referendum. The idea that this House should not test the proposition again, because in some way we are forcing people to choose something in which they have either no interest or, if they have an interest, a decided and fixed view, is not supported by the facts in Birmingham in particular. 

The right hon. Member for Leeds Central asked some questions about the question—I think we can say that—that the Electoral Commission provided advice on, and my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich South made the same point. Is the question in a sufficiently polemical form or is it written in a way that makes it difficult for electors to understand the question or what the differences are? All I would say to the right hon.

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Gentleman and my hon. Friend is that I can only imagine the row there would have been this morning if we had received advice from the Electoral Commission on the nature and form of the question and we proposed something different. It would be absolutely untenable for a Government to come forward and say, “We received advice from the Electoral Commission—the body setup by Parliament to give advice—and we decided to ignore it.” I honestly think that the right hon. Gentleman would have had a little more to say about that. We have to understand that when we seek advice on such a sensitive issue from the body charged with giving advice, gainsaying that advice is a very inappropriate use of the powers of the Government and the House. 

The right hon. Gentleman also asked about petitions. I am sure that he will correct me if I am wrong, but I think his question was, “What can be done about vexatious petitions?” The existing Representation of the People Acts cover the rules relating to that, so it is not necessary to include additional regulations. 

My hon. Friend the Member for Windsor asked about expenses, and I can make it absolutely clear that we are talking about two different situations. The first is the cost of conducting the referendum, to which one or two other hon. Members referred. Returning officers incur that cost and, as we announced in June 2011, they will be 100% reimbursed by the Government. There will be a meeting with returning officers in the cities to discuss how that will be carried out, which I drew to the attention of one of the other Committees on this topic. That is one set of expenditure—it is public and it is for conducting the referendum itself. 

Expenses are totally different. There is an expenditure limit that individuals and organisations can commit in campaigning, just as there are general and council election expense limits. Those limits are confined by the numbers that my hon. Friend and I discussed during his speech. He asked whether they included campaign costs—indeed, they do, and those are the costs captured by an expense limit. If there are two referendums, there are two packets of expenses, just as there are with council and general elections, as many of us would have found in 2010. 

My hon. Friend also asked whether it would be possible for somebody to challenge an authority on the grounds that it had not advertised effectively or satisfactorily. Councils are under an obligation to behave reasonably and to be able to demonstrate that they have done so. The principles of reasonableness could, at the outer limit, be challengeable through judicial review, although one would imagine that, in most cases, the existence of a referendum would be fairly widely known and a council would be able to demonstrate that it had publicised it effectively. In the event of a challenge before a poll, there could be a delay until the challenge was dispensed with. 

Another question—I do not recall whether it was from the right hon. Member for Leeds Central or my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor—was whether a challenge after a result would lead to the mayor not taking office until the challenge had been dealt with, and that is the case, as it would be with any other challenge to an election in those circumstances. 

The hon. Member for Warley— 

Mr Spellar:  Right hon. 

Column number: 15 

Andrew Stunell:  I apologise. Perhaps I should just call everyone right hon. 

The right hon. Member for Warley said that no one on the Government side of the Committee had any experience of a metropolitan area— 

Mr Spellar:  I did not say that. 

The Chair:  Order. May we have interventions, rather than comments. 

Mr Spellar:  I am happy to intervene. I was quite clear. I said that no one on the Government side of the Committee represented any of the cities that are affected. I went on to acknowledge—prompted by the intervention from the hon. Member for Croydon Central—that the hon. Member for Dudley South represented a metropolitan borough, but not one of those affected. It may well be that the Minister also represents a metropolitan borough, but apart from that Government members of the Committee all represent areas that are not affected. Apart from the hon. Member for Croydon Central, all the Government members represent areas that will not have mayors under these proposals. The Government cannot get people who will be affected to come along. 

The Chair:  You have made the point. 

Andrew Stunell:  It would be unreasonable for me to object to the right hon. Gentleman making his point at two consecutive meetings as I am making mine at 12 consecutive meetings. However, to shorten the dialogue in future, I should say that I represent a constituency in a metropolitan borough immediately adjacent to the city of Manchester, which is one of those that—subject to the will of the House—will be having a referendum on 3 May. Incidentally, the quote that I gave—I hope you will allow me to say this, Mrs Brooke—in the Birmingham discussion came from the Labour party board for Birmingham and was its assertion about the powers that it wanted to see the mayor exercise. It was not the Government’s view on what power should be exercised. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), the Minister with responsibility for cities, launched the exercise of inviting the core cities, which include Birmingham, to propose the powers that they would want to take from central Government in future. Those discussions are ongoing. 

The right hon. Member for Warley said that the Government were basing their views on Birmingham on “untested assumptions”. I think I have at least challenged his view that the people of Birmingham have a settled will and are opposed to a mayor. Bearing in mind what the people decided 10 years ago, there is nothing unreasonable in the Government requiring that view to be tested again now. I want to make it clear to the Committee that the effect of the regulations coming into force is that it will still be open to Birmingham, to take the example that the right hon. Gentleman has brought to our attention, to have any of the governance models allowed under statute. Indeed, the way in which the regulations will come into force means that, if Birmingham comes up with a novel governance system, it is fully entitled to put it to the Secretary of State and, subject to a referendum there, to have it approved.

Column number: 16 

On 3 May, the electors of Birmingham have a choice between retaining the strong leader model or moving to the mayor and cabinet model. If they decide to retain the strong leader model, it is open to Birmingham city council to resolve to keep that model, to move to the previous committee system model or to come up with yet another model and to invite the Secretary of State to approve it under the governance arrangements. 

Opposition Members will eventually realise that the Localism Act 2011 was a significant and long overdue move towards devolution in this country. When they and local authorities understand that, they will accept that the Act has given greater flexibility to the governance arrangements for local authorities than was previously the case. 

Mr Spellar:  Will the Minister give way? 

Andrew Stunell:  One of the points made by the right hon. Gentleman was that if we did not like the result in Birmingham, we would ask people to vote again and again until we got the right answer. I tell the Committee that that is absolutely not the case. In September 2001, when Birmingham had its indicative poll, the statutory poll in Sunderland produced a resolution not to have a mayor. Sunderland is not included among the cities, because the Government have taken into account that clear statutory poll 10 years ago. 

Mr Spellar:  Will the Minister give way? 

Andrew Stunell:  I will when I have finished my point. In relation to mayors created under the existing system, as opposed to the new one, the same 10-year moratorium applies. I absolutely refute the idea that the Government are simply pressuring, forcing or compelling English cities to have the mayoral model. 

Mr Spellar:  Will the Minister give way now? 

Andrew Stunell:  Of course I will. 

Mr Spellar:  The Minister rightly identified the options that are open to Birmingham if it votes for the current strong leader model, and he also mentioned other cities that have mayors. What is inconsistent is the Government’s proposal that if Birmingham or other cities vote for an elected mayor, that decision can be reversed only by primary legislation. Why has he not left cities with the option, even with a built-in time scale, to have a further referendum following either a petition or a council resolution? Why is there a ratchet in that case and not in others? 

Andrew Stunell:  I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman—I will not get that wrong again—can persuade his party to include such a provision in its manifesto for the 2015 general election. 

Question put and agreed to.  


That the Committee has considered the draft Local Authorities (Conduct of Referendums) (England) Regulations 2012. 

9.59 am 

Committee rose.  

Prepared 25th January 2012