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Amendment No. 65 and the other three amendments, Amendments Nos. 68, 77 and 85, which stand in my name in this group are a linked series of amendments intended to remove the concept of permitted resolution periods and permitted resolution years for changing electoral systems. They would allow local authorities to make that decision at any time during the electoral cycle. There does not
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Concerning the years, there seems to be a belief that all councils that have whole-council elections in a particular category should poll on the first Thursday in May in the same year. I see no reason why that should happen. It is a view of neatness which is a national view but has no relevance whatever to people in a particular authority. What does it matter to someone in Leeds whether the council polls in the same year as a council in Scunthorpe? It really does not matter at all.
There will be local elections of some sort somewhere in pretty well every year. It seems to me that people should be allowed to make the decision when they want and get on with it. That is the basis of the amendment. I beg to move.
Baroness Hamwee: I would be delighted if the clauses were pre-empted. My amendments stem from curiosity about why the Government have chosen the particular dates. I have not taken the argument as far as my noble friend, but he is right to have done sohe has probably asked the questions that I would need to ask.
Lord Hanningfield: Briefly on the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, one of our problems is that the public already do not understand about elections. We have a job to promote local government elections, for example, as not enough people vote in them. There would be even more confusion if one place had an election in one year and one in another year. Other countries, everywhere in the world, seem to have similar elections on certain daysmost countries have it planned for many years ahead. I would be opposed to having different sorts of elections at different times. That would add confusion and make even fewer people vote than vote now.
Lord Graham of Edmonton: Out of curiosity, is the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, suggesting that authorities in the same class could determine to have their elections at different times? As I understand the situation, the law lays down that all district or metropolitan or any other class elections should take place at the same time. If, in pursuit of freedom, democracy and devolution, it is left to the whim or otherwise of every local authority to determine when it should have its elections, that would be a recipe for chaos. I may have got it wrongit would not be for the first timebut I am asking a question. If my surmise is correct, I do not think that the amendment would improve the reputation or the well-being of local authorities in the eyes of the public.
Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: I hope to provide some clarity following these interesting and important probing amendments, which we have looked at carefully. Amendments Nos. 65, 77 and 85 would remove the resolution periods, which would mean that district councils would be able to resolve and then change their schemes for elections at any time. That relates to the question of chaos just mentioned by my noble friend. Currently, there is a clear pattern of elections by type of authority across England. All the councils of the same classcounty council, London borough, metropolitan district and non-metropolitan districtthat operate the same scheme of elections do so in the same years. For example, all non-metropolitan districts on whole-council elections elect in 2011, 2015 and so on.
The resolution periods ensure that the pattern continues. To remove them and allow elections to take place at different times across the country would cause considerable confusion for all those involved in local government elections, including the electors, no doubt. It would also be detrimental to those who wish to stand as county and district councillors if elections took place in the same year, which is currently prevented by the timing of the resolution periods. The resolution periods are set so that, once a decision is made, the change happens as soon as possible and the national pattern of elections for different classes of council is maintained.
We are also opposed to Amendment No. 68. Whole-council elections for non-metropolitan district councils have always taken place in the same year. The 1972 Act set the years of elections as 1979 and every fourth year thereafter. This pattern has been followed since then. We do not believe that this should be changed by the Bill, because it provides clarity to electoral administrators, political parties, candidates and, above all, electors. Allowing councils to have elections whenever they liked would increase confusion among all the groups and not lead to effective local government elections.
We have carefully considered Amendments Nos. 66, 67, 86 and 87. After the initial extended resolution period that begins with the commencement of Part 2, the Bill provides for short resolution periods of three months. We have proposed these three-month periods to give a short, specified opportunity to pass a resolution. Following this, the council will be able to get on with normal business under its existing electoral cycle or prepare for a change in the cycle. The consultation, which we have already discussed and agreed to be important, and the local debate that will be needed can take place prior to the three-month period. It is only the resolution that must be passed during that three-month period. Three months is sufficient for councils to be able to hold a meeting and pass a resolution. However, we are listening to the concerns raised by the noble Lords opposite.
In the light of my remarks, I hope that noble Lords will not press Amendments Nos. 65, 68, 77 and 85. We give an undertaking to think further about Amendments Nos. 66, 67, 86 and 87. I hope that that provides the Committee with some clarification.
Lord Greaves: I did not imagine that the Government would agree with me on this, which is all to do with people at national level who want neatness and nothing at all to do with confusion. Among non-metropolitan districts and existing unitary authorities, there are already three different systems of elections. Many still poll by thirds, seven poll by halvesI am grateful for an Answer from the Minister this week, because I know how many of them there are nowand the rest use whole-council elections. These are not separated into different parts of the country; the pattern is very mixed up all over the place.
Nobody thinks that this causes real confusion. The Electoral Commission did some work on it in 2003 and its report, The Cycle of Local Government Elections in England, recommended that there should be whole-council elections once every four years. It suggested that that would provide a model that would be equitable and easy to understand and would best serve the interests of electors. But when I talk to people at a local level, I cannot find anybody who thinks it important that the years in which their council is electedwhether by thirds, by halves or by the whole councilshould be decided by what people in other parts of the country think. By and large, there are established patterns. It is interesting that, despite the fact that authorities have been able to move to whole-council elections since 1974, of the non-metropolitan districts that originally opted for election by thirds, only 11 have done so.
There is a great deal of conservatism about local election systems, but the reason for that is that people are used to what happens in their areas. The Electoral Commission said that people do not know when the elections are going to be and what is going on. If there is an election every four years, they will not know in which year it is coming up. In an election in an area such as ours, where we have a local election every yearthree times for the district and once for the countypeople know. They know that there is a council election on the first Thursday in May, or some time in the spring, every year. What determines voters knowing when the elections are coming up is how much publicity there is about the elections before they take place. That partly depends on whether the council is publicising them adequately, but it mainly depends on the candidates in the local political parties. They are the people who tell the public when the polls are and who say, Come on, get out and vote. I really do not think that confusion exists among electors.
The one argument that I acceptthe noble Lord mentioned itis about the two-tier system. In two-tier areas, it would be stupid to have the district council elections on the same day as the county elections, although I remind noble Lords that that is what used to happen in urban districts and municipal boroughs before 1974. It was not very satisfactory. The turnout in county elections was always significantly below the turnout in district elections. Having two elections in two months was not a very satisfactory state of affairs. So I accept that that should be the case. On the rest of it, I do not agree.
There is a lot to be said for all London boroughs perhaps polling on the same day, because they all use whole-council elections. If they are to stay that way, there is sense in having local arrangements like that. But for metropolitan districts that go to whole-council elections, if any do, it does not matter on which of the four years two or three out of the 10 or 11 districts in Greater Manchester, for example, poll. If Wigan and Stockport decide to go for whole-council elections, the fact that they are in different years would not make the slightest difference, because the rest of Greater Manchester would still be polling every year. I think that this issue has been grossly overstated. It is a matter of neatness and tidiness by administrators at a national level and has nothing to do with the situation on the ground. However, in the light of what has been said, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: This is an important amendment on a substantive issue, which had quite a good going over in Committee in the House of Commons, where it became very clear that Members of Parliament were attached to different kinds of electoral systems on the basis of their own experience. Apparently, most people are in favour of the system with which they have grown up and which they knew and liked. But some people, on the basis of their experience, want to change, which reflects accurately the situation throughout the country.
This group of amendments seeks to give all councils the option to choose whether to have whole-council elections every four years, elections by thirds in three of those four years or elections by halves. For a year or two, it has been policy for the Government to encourage people to move away from whole-council elections. Before then, the opposite was the case. It all depends on who is doing the thinking, the reports, the surveys or happens to be in Downing Street advising or dreaming up new ideas for the Government. I do not criticise people for doing that useful job, but it depends on the theme or fad of the moment. What gets put in legislation is accidental: it depends on where the fad of the moment coincides with another Bill in which it can be inserted. That is how it works.
There are good arguments for both whole-council elections and for elections by thirds, some of which have been put forward today. At the local district level, there are very strong arguments in favour of annual elections by thirds. There are probably good arguments in favour of elections every two years,
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Having decided that they want to encourage councils to move to whole-council elections, though not forcing them to do so, the Government produced this Bill. As a result of pressure that was put forward in the House of Commons in favour of annual elections or alternate half-council elections, the Bill has been modifiedI think it was on Report in the Commonsto allow those councils which had previously been electing by thirds or halves and then moved to whole-council to move back again. This seems illogical. If it is okay for the seven councils that elect by halves or the 11 councils that had moved to whole-council from a third to move back again, why can other people not move back? This seems an issue on which the Government should let the councils make their own decisions to move in either direction. There is no serious evidence that leadership in whole-council elections is better than leadership in election by thirds or halves. That evidence does not exist and people should be acting on what is being said about devolution.
The arguments for annual elections or elections in halves are that if change is taking place, it takes place more slowly. There is greater stability. You do not have the risk that a party that has been running a council for four yearsdoing a good or bad jobis swept out not because of its record locally, but because it happens to be the party of the Government of the day, who are in mid-term and extremely unpopular, and people are voting for non-local reasons. Most people in local elections nowadays vote for local reasons, or far more than people think. Nevertheless, there are occasionsand some of us can remember such years in the pastwhen everybody of one party is swept out. It happened in 1990 when the Labour Party swept the board; it happened in 1977 when the Tories swept the board. Having annual elections is a safeguard against local decision-making and local politics being quite so subject to such an undesirable. I was a member of Lancashire County Council from 1977 to 1981. At that time Lancashire County Council, which has been Labour-controlled since 1981, consisted of 84 Conservatives, 12 Labour membersincluding the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, whom I first met thenand me. That was it. It was an absolute travesty. For that to last four years was not desirable for local government. I therefore believe that there ought to be local decision-making on this and that
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The Electoral Commission has recommended that whole-council elections should be put in place across the country. While accepting that whole-council elections have benefits in terms of direct accountability, the White Paper recognised that some areas have a tradition of partial council electionselections by halves and elections by thirds. We are therefore allowing councils that have previously operated elections by halves or by thirds to revert to them. However, where a council has always held whole-council electionswhich is the pattern of elections that the Electoral Commission has both recommended and demonstrated to be in the interests of electors and effective democratic processesit would be perverse now to give them the option of moving away from that system. The Government are promoting a very consistent policy; this is why we have limited the councils that can move to halves to the ones which have a tradition of that system of elections.
I hope the noble Lord will withdraw the amendment. As I have said, if he wishes to discuss matters at greater length outside the Committee, I shall be very happy to do so. However, we have been very clear through the White Paper and through the passage of the Bill in another place that it is important to recognise existing traditions while promoting our overarching policy of whole elections.
Baroness Scott of Needham Market: I am open to the arguments on either side. I come from a whole-council election tradition, and I understand that system better than the other; nevertheless, one can make an argument for either side. Do the Government have available to them any evidence about the impact of different electoral systems on the performance of local authorities? After all, we have had a plethora of inspecting bodiesthe Audit Commission, Ofsted, the Commission for Social Care Inspection and so on.
Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: I am sure the noble Baroness will accept that we are very committed to evidence-based policy-making. There is evidence, but I do not have it to hand. I shall be very happy to write to her and ensure that Members of the Committee have access to that information before Report.
Lord Greaves: I do not believe there is any evidence at all and I shall be very interested to see what the Minister comes up with. The real evidence would be among non-metropolitan districts where the difference systems exist; you could not compare a county council with a metropolitan borough or a London borough. But some of the best performing
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I am disappointed by the slight Stalinism of the Ministers response; it seems to fly in the face of the devolutionary rhetoric. I say that tongue in cheek; it is certainly not a personal comment but it may be a comment on her Government. I have no intention of attempting to divide the House at 5.55 pm on a Thursday, so I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Greaves: The reason I tabled my objection to the Question whether this clause should stand part is that I did not understand it, even after trying to do some research. I thought perhaps I might understand it after an explanation.
Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: I propose that Clause 51 should stand part of the Bill. It deals with a case in which the Electoral Commission has received a notice that a council has passed a resolution for partial-council elections and has exercised its power under Section 13(3) of the Local Government Act 1992 to direct the Boundary Committee to conduct an electoral review.
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