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Lord Harris of Haringey: I am still comparatively new to the ways of this Chamber but had not realised, until I listened to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, that it was customary to speak both for and against an amendment one was moving.
If the noble Lord's argument was, as I understand it to be, that a low turn-out in a local government election demonstrates that the population of that area is broadly satisfied with the performance of that local authority--I believe that is what he was implying and that that is the situation with which he is familiar in Essex--then surely the same principle applies to a referendum on this sort of matter. I suspect that if the fears and terrors outlined about this possible proposal were as great as some have suggested, people would come out and vote in this referendum. But if they do not feel it matters a great deal or they are broadly happy with what is going on, I suspect that they may not. In that case, imposing an arbitrary limit suggests, as my noble friend Lord Filkin said, that it is a covert means of imposing something about which Members of the Committee opposite are not happy.
I turn briefly to the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. She conjured up an image of people being enthused on matters which come before them in a referendum. I wish people were enthusiastic about matters of local government; that they could become excited about how their local councils organise themselves--we all hold that optimistic hope. But to state that people must be positively enthused as a minimum requirement before there can be change is unrealistic.
This Bill puts forward a number of hurdles before an elected mayor can be introduced. It is said that there must be a referendum. That is not something which will be lightly entered into by a local authority. Nor is it something that one can automatically assume will go one way or another. I suspect that in any area there will be a comparatively vigorous debate on the subject. It may not enthuse the majority of electors, but those interested will be engaged in that debate.
The amendment also suggests a significant threshold as a requirement for a referendum. But to introduce an arbitrary hurdle which must be passed before a new system can be introduced is unnecessary. I suspect, as suggested by my noble friend Lord Filkin,
Baroness Hamwee: The notion that a low turn-out equates with broad satisfaction left me wondering about my 20 years in local government when, in every election in which I stood, more than 60 per cent of my ward turned out. I had thought that that was some sort of indication of satisfaction; perhaps I should review that view. I hear from behind me that they must have hated me!
The referendum must stand or fall on its own merits. On these Benches we are concerned about the proposals for elected mayors as put forward in the model that the Government are promoting, but we accept that it should be the decision of the local community. To require a given level of the electorate to vote undermines that approach. After all, electors have the right not to vote, sometimes to make a point. Some Members of the Committee may have heard me tell this story before, but it is relevant here; I refer to an occasion in my borough where a spoilt ballot paper was seen to have written up the side of it, inevitably in green ink, "They think I am voting, but I am not".
Lord Whitty: Irrespective of the last unnamed constituent of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, clearly her ward is the epitome of democratic participation in that 60 per cent is, regrettably, higher than almost any area of local authority experience in recent years. We are debating this amendment against the background of low turn-outs in local authority elections for a number of years, and falling.
I hope that the kind of glee and enthusiasm conjured up by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, will eventually result from these changes in the way in which we are operating local authorities. We can hardly expect it to be there in advance. The kind of thresholds discussed here--whether or not my more conspiracy-theorist colleagues are correct that they are intended as a way of preserving the status quo--would regrettably tend to have that effect were it not for the fact that other provisions prevent local authorities from maintaining the status quo.
This is an important issue and one that the Government considered carefully. As my noble friend Lord Filkin said, the Joint Committee, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, also considered it carefully. However, broadly for the reasons I outlined and on grounds of practicality, it did not consider it sensible to require a threshold. To be credible, in one sense it would have to be fairly low in relation to actual achieved local authority election turn-outs, but to have a broader political authority it would have to be too high to be achieved. Therefore on grounds of practicality that approach was rejected.
Grounds of presentation and politics are also involved in this issue. When a situation provides that one can obtain victory in a referendum but that that victory can be snatched away by the fact that the turn-out provision has not been met, the political consequences may be dire. Members of the Committee will recall an earlier referendum in Scotland in the 1970s. The effect of that was detrimental both to the politics of Scotland and the United Kingdom. It has taken 20 years to put that right.
That is a considerably worse consequence than a consequence which has too low a turn-out and too low a majority. After all, a majority of one is recognised as legitimate. Hopefully, we will achieve a majority substantially greater than that in the new forms of government, but a majority of anything which is then snatched away is bad politics and a bad way of introducing an alternative form of executive structure.
Therefore, while I accept some of the sentiments presented by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, I can give him no comfort on his proposal. The Government would not wish to see this provision written on the face of the Bill and I ask the noble Lord to withdraw it.
Lord Dixon-Smith: We have had an interesting and useful debate. The point we raised is an important one. Moreover--dare I say it?--it has had the effect of lightening the atmosphere in the Chamber which was becoming somewhat heavy.
I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Hanham for her support. I should point out to the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, that nothing in these proposals would have prevented elections. The amendments in this group only talk about referendums, which are a novel introduction into the political proceedings of this country; an introduction about which there is still a great deal of interest and, indeed, disagreement.
The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, talked about people voting if they are affected. If people knew that a floor had been set, they might--if, in fact, they were enthused--be persuaded to turn out and vote in order to beat that floor. I gather from the noble Lord's remarks that he suspects that people would be singularly bored by the whole business and that, therefore, we would actually be putting through proposals which lacked the support of the community.
I hear what the Minister says about the dangers of winning a referendum but then being cut off by a threshold. However, I do not think that that is a matter we should necessarily accept. I certainly do not accept
I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, on the turnout in her ward when she was in elective office. That was a magnificent result. Indeed, I wish all other communities were performing as well. As the Minister said, it is immensely regrettable that that is not the case. I do not apologise for bringing forward this issue and I do not feel inclined to withdraw my amendment. A little exercise will do us all good; indeed, a democratic vote in what is called an "undemocratic" Chamber would be of interest to us all. I wish to test the opinion of the Committee.
Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.
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