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Lord Lipsey: I am sorry to detain the Committee at this point. I shall do so briefly. I oppose the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, although I sympathise with many of his arguments. My opposition is on two grounds. One is the doctrine of "unripe time". We are presently in the rather turbulent aftermath of the first PR elections held in Scotland and Wales and under the new system for Europe. It is not a very good time to take an objective look at the system for local government, even though the amendment would allow a year's grace before the inquiry would be established.

My second reason for opposing the amendment is that, having had some experience of inquiries, I know that it is the devil's own job to get Ministers to accept the results, even when they have set the inquiries up themselves with enormous enthusiasm at the beginning. The chances of getting anywhere with an inquiry about which the Secretary of State might not be so enthusiastic are not very high.

However, I have some sympathy with the spirit of the proposal. Perhaps I may briefly say why. There is a case to be considered for changing the system of election for local government. There are the arguments put by the noble Lord: a monopoly council such as Newham, where, with less than 60 per cent of the vote, Labour holds all the seats. There are perverse results in local government. Croydon springs to mind, where Labour is nearly 8 per cent behind the Conservatives in its share of the vote but has an overall majority.

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There is also the lack of interest that the electoral system creates. I note that, in 1996, in Barnsley, 14 of the 22 seats on the council went uncontested. That is bad for local government.

In Scotland, first-past-the-post is indefensible because there are four parties. The McIntosh inquiry recommended change in Scotland, and a working group is now studying the detail. There is a case for carrying such proposals forward here. An inquiry would have at least three central purposes. One would be to canvass arguments for and against change. This is not a case as in the Jenkins proposals where the arguments are fairly well known and the job of the Jenkins Commission was to come up with the best possible alternative to be put before the people in a referendum. It is a case where the arguments have not been well considered and require objective examination.

Secondly, many people who talk freely about this subject do not know what the alternative systems would be and what would be their advantages. Just because Jenkins came up with AV+ for Westminster, it does not mean that AV+ would be right for local authorities. There is a much stronger case for the STV system for local government. In local government, essentially one wants to give quite a lot of weight to the individual candidates and rather less weight than in national elections to the party. That aspect should be examined.

The third important issue is whether any change that was introduced should be introduced nationally or by local option. There is a serious case to be made out for local experimentation and local option, so that we could feel our way towards a better system without plumping for a particular proposal straightaway. All those matters would be for an eventual inquiry to decide. I do not have the answers now. I hope, however, that in rejecting the amendment the Committee will leave the Minister with some sense that, when the time is no longer unripe and perhaps the Secretary of State's mind has moved more towards openness than it has in the past, he will consider such an inquiry. It could lead to a valuable and helpful national debate.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, the prospect of a more "ripe" Secretary of State is an interesting one. When the Secretary of State becomes more ripe, he or she may see the need to connect the issue of electoral reform and the type of election with the matters dealt with in Part IV of the Bill; namely, the timing of elections and whether they are for all councillors or merely for some. It does not seem sensible to send

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groups of authorities down one course, thereby putting back the debate, because it would be more difficult to make the change sequentially. It is important that the matters are considered together. That is the reason why we have proposed a commission. We do not seek to impose a particular method, although our preferences would be those described by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey.

Lord Whitty: Noble Lords who have spoken in this debate may believe that they have received a totally negative response to their amendments today. We do not believe that a change to the electoral system is a priority in local government. We believe that the main priority is to make councillors more responsive to their electorates and that the framework that we are putting in place will ensure that that happens. We consider local government modernisation to be more fundamental than the type of electoral system used. A number of Royal Commissions have looked at alternative electoral systems and we do not need another one. We would have enough information already if we were ever to move down that road, but we do not intend to move down that road or to legislate for it in this Bill.

The analogy with London is erroneous. In that assembly, members must take a strategic view across London whereas normally the essence of local government is that councillors are very much representatives of their own communities, so different arguments apply. In any case, we do not regard it as opportune, ripe or appropriate to insert this new clause in the Bill at this time. Therefore, I hope that the noble Lord will not pursue the matter.

Lord Tope: The Minister does not leave much room for doubt in his reply. I thank him for at least giving a clear answer, even if it is the wrong one. I can think of few measures that are more likely to increase the accountability of councillors than to have a more representative voting system, but tonight is not the time to pursue the matter. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 61 agreed to.

Clauses 64 to 67 agreed to.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

        House adjourned at eighteen minutes before six o'clock.

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