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Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for her support. I am grateful, too, to the Minister for his reply. However, I am bound to tell him that that is as far as my gratitude can go. Regrettably, his reply was exactly what I expected and I cannot say that I find it acceptable.

Towards the end of his remarks, the noble Lord summed up the difference between us. He said that,

That committee-based structure has served this country well. We know that it works, albeit not perfectly and, as with all things, it is always capable of improvement. However, that structure is set against a system that we know nothing about; its benefits are still entirely hypothetical. It may work, but then, it may not.

I am sorry to disagree with the Minister; indeed, earlier I described the Bill as a one-way track into a cul-de-sac. But that is what the Bill will not merely invite; it will compel local government to take that route. This country is supposed to be a democracy. It is my view that in a democracy a government should be the servant of the people. The words used by the Minister appear to indicate that this Government have a rather different approach. I regret that. The Minister has tempted me to draft yet another amendment to meet some of his objections and to bring it back at Third Reading. I may well do that. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

2 Mar 2000 : Column 698

5.45 p.m.

Lord Dixon-Smith moved Amendment No. 51:

    Page 18, line 34, at end insert--

("( ) No referendum held under this Part shall be binding on the authority unless 25 per cent. of the registered electors have voted in the referendum.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving this amendment, I wish to speak to Amendments Nos. 54 and 55 which are grouped with it and set out in the same terms.

The amendment raises a point which we debated in Committee in a slightly different manner. What proportion of the community should participate in a referendum for that referendum to have validity and to force through a particular action? Again, we are dealing with the question of the confidence of the Government in their own proposals. If they are not prepared to put a figure on the level of participation in a referendum, one might be tempted to assume that, despite opinion polls indicating that the population are largely in favour of elected mayors, the Government are not all that confident. Indeed, when the London electorate was invited to vote on the matter it did not show a great deal of enthusiasm. Events since then are, I believe, more likely to provoke abstentions rather than votes, but that is neither here nor there.

It seems that if we are to take the route of using referendums, at the very least there ought to be a minimum participation figure for the result to be binding. What happened in Germany is an old canard; the consequences of minorities in referendums led to a dreadful cataclysm earlier in the last century. However, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. I suggest that, despite the Minister's comments in Committee, there should be a minimum figure for participation.

The figure I have suggested would not have created any problems for either London or Wales. In the light of experience, the figure of 25 per cent is not unreasonable. I beg to move.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, although no doubt the noble Lord will think that this amendment is much more reasonable than the previous one, many of my arguments will sound familiar to him. I recognise the noble Lord's position. At first sight a figure of 25 per cent participation may not appear unreasonable. However, in this country we do not have precedents for setting any kind of threshold in elections. The one exception was that of Scotland, which I mentioned previously. The referendum in the 1970s led to a majority of those who voted supporting devolution, but the turn-out threshold was not reached. The result was a period of great anxiety and tension in Scottish politics which only recently we have begun to put right.

Any threshold can present such an outcome. We should also bear in mind that we are discussing local government. It is the hope, I believe, of all three parties that the changes to, and modernisation of, local government structures that we intend to implement will lead to higher participation and turn-outs in

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elections. But we have no guarantee of that. In many parts of the country, the situation in local government unfortunately has deteriorated in recent years. That has resulted in major changes--for example, dramatic changes of control--taking place with low levels of turn-out. In at least one relatively recent case that I can think of the turn-out was less than 10 per cent.

With that background to the turn-out for local government elections, it would seem unreasonable to impose a threshold of 25 per cent or, indeed, a threshold of any kind. If the majority who vote, and who are persuaded to vote for change, do so, it would then be unreasonable for us to say to them, "Sorry, your majority opinion is not enough because not enough of you turned out".

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, perhaps I may ask why the Government ask local authorities which are considering transferring their housing stock to achieve a minimum turn-out of council tenants in such elections or referendums. I believe that the rationale behind it is to ensure that that is one of the pieces of evidence on which the council has properly consulted and that it achieves a sufficient turn-out in a tenants' ballot. Why is that situation treated differently from this one?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I believe that in those circumstances we are dealing with a contractual tenancy arrangement where a majority vote would, or could, alter the tenancy position of all the tenants who have not voted. Therefore, I believe that we are dealing with a different situation; that is, a change of structure, control or policy by a vote in local authorities. I do not believe that the referendum turn-out can be regarded as significantly different from the question of turn-out in a local election.

Regrettably, if we were to set a turn-out figure of 25 per cent in local elections, at present a goodly number of local election results would be disqualified and become null and void. I hope that the whole process will lead to turn-outs substantially above 25 per cent and, indeed, substantially above what I believe was the previously proposed threshold of 40 per cent. Nevertheless, at this point we cannot require that. Were we to do so, it could lead to political frustration and ambiguity. Therefore, I hope that we shall not pursue that course.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, the Minister rightly quotes the background to what happened in Scotland many years ago. Indeed, that is not an unreasonable argument. However, the fact that the noble Lord will not include a figure, even as low as 25 per cent of the electorate, reveals, as I said earlier, a great lack of confidence. Perhaps the public are not as smitten with the proposals as the noble Lord wishes to pretend.

Having spent a large part of my life in local government, I can assure the Minister that I have watched with at least as much distress as he might have done the performance of local electorates in local

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elections. However, the fact is that over many, many years--going back to a time long before I was involved in local government--as central government's control, guidance and funding of local government has increased, so local electorates' interest has diminished. That is a very sad fact.

However, it is also the case that the Bill does nothing to tackle that problem. Therefore, I am afraid that we shall see change being brought about and enforced on local communities in response to a very low rate of interest from the electorate. We shall probably find that electorates will continue not to be bothered greatly about what goes on in their communities unless perhaps something goes wrong. In the midst of this, among other things we are writing into the Bill procedures which, in my view, could be abused rather more easily than the present system might permit. I accept entirely that there are checks and balances. However, if things start to go wrong, perhaps then the community will begin to take an interest.

I believe that the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, is entirely appropriate. That said, at this stage I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Whitty moved Amendment No. 52:

    Page 19, line 24, leave out ("must not exceed") and insert ("(unless such regulations otherwise provide) is to be").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is the point in the Bill where the Government propose a threshold. This, of course, relates to the figure concerning petitions. We have been over this ground before. I indicated during Committee stage that an amendment would be necessary to ensure that regulations enable a petition threshold to be set above or below 5 per cent. This amendment reinstates the effect from the introduction print of the Bill. I believe that it delivers more fully the commitments made in our response to the Joint Committee to keep the 5 per cent threshold under review. As I promised, it is a relatively minor amendment in textual terms.

Therefore, I hope that the House will agree that the purpose of the amendment is clear. There is quite a delicate balance to be struck between setting a threshold which is too high for local people to achieve and setting one so low that councils would be forced into referendums (at a cost to the local taxpayer) which, if defeated, would be nugatory. Therefore, we believe that 5 per cent strikes the right balance and that is the level at which we shall set the threshold. However, we also indicated that we would keep the threshold under review. The amendment enables maximum flexibility to give effect to the outcome of such a review.

The second amendment, Amendment No. 53, to which I shall refer with the leave of the House, makes a drafting change to the same subsection to ensure that the intended effect of the provision is in fact clear. I beg to move Amendment No. 52.

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