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There ought not to be a presumption that single-member seats are better than multi-member seats, and the Government ought to pull back from what seems to be a current wish to move more authorities to become single-member wards. I beg to move.

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: I will seek to convince the Committee that these amendments are not needed and that the clause should stand part. Clause 55 allows county councils, along with all other councils, to make a request for single-member electoral areas. To require them to make such a request would force county councils that wish to retain two- or three-member divisions to do something they may not want. The Bill provides local choice, and we see no good reason to force county councils to make such a request. If they wish to do so, no doubt they will.

It is questionable whether the Electoral Commission and its Boundary Committee would have the resources to conduct reviews of the 21 county councils that do not have single members in all their divisions if those councils were forced to make these requests within six months.

The noble Lord indicated that he wished Clause 55 to be deleted, but it inserts new Sections 14A and 14B to the Local Government Act 1992. Those new sections enable a principal council that is subject to a whole-council election to request the Electoral Commission to direct the Boundary Committee to conduct an electoral review and to recommend whether each electoral area in a council’s area should return one councillor. The Electoral Commission is not obliged to grant the request, but if it decides not to do so, reasons must be given. Electoral areas in a county council are county divisions, and the areas in a district council are district wards, as I am sure noble Lords are well aware.

In conducting the review, the Boundary Committee will be required to have regard to the following matters, which it must already have regard to when carrying out electoral reviews: it must reflect community identity and interests, ensure effective and convenient local government, and secure equality of representation. If the Boundary Committee, having had regard to these needs, considers that it would be inappropriate to recommend that all electoral areas become single-member electoral areas, it is not obliged to make such a recommendation. The clause devolves to councils the initiative to seek single-member electoral areas where they consider it right to do so. The amendment would force councils to do something they do not wish to do. I hope that the noble Lord will consider withdrawing his amendment. We recognise the importance of tradition,

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and it is our aim to devolve and delegate as much as possible to local authorities.

Baroness Hanham: My understanding is that an election would take place under the normal system—two or three-member wards, say—and that a council would then decide that it wanted to change to single-member wards, which would reduce the ward size by one-half or one-third. If that review was undertaken, presumably the change in the wards would not come into force until the following election time. What impact might that have on the nature of representation? Presumably, the way that the ward boundaries are formed could affect the make-up of the local council.

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: I need to make clear that the principal concern here is determining whether a review of the electoral cycle needs to be undertaken. It is for the Electoral Commission to decide that. If such a review takes place, the Boundary Committee would need to take into account the criteria that I outlined. If that does not answer the noble Baroness’s question, I will have to look at it and write to her.

Baroness Hanham: The question is perhaps easier than the Minister thinks. If it is recommended after the review that the council go down to single-member wards, presumably that change would come into force only at the next election, and it would have to be on whole-council not part-council elections.

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: Yes, I agree with the noble Baroness.

Lord Graham of Edmonton: At lunchtime today, the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, and I attended the annual meeting of London Councils. My twopenny’s worth on this debate is to observe how enormous the canvas is on which local government is constituted and operates. At the meeting the apologies of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, were given, and I made reference to the valuable work done for London Councils by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. The power and enormity of the responsibilities around that table struck me, in comparison to the field in which I know the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is such an expert. The problem is that there is no situation where one size fits everything.

We have a mechanism that allows these things to be tested. As far as I can see and understand, the Government are genuinely attempting to cut out bureaucracy and waste while providing a mechanism whereby any genuine need for change can be tested. We have the great arbiter of the Electoral Commission to examine all the evidence. So, while I highly and sincerely respect what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, tells us, we cannot interfere very much with the present arrangements. The integrity of the Electoral Commission, which is integral to this part, is not besmirched. It is the best body to listen and to bring forward any changes.

Lord Greaves: I am grateful for that short debate, which has been a useful run through the issues. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 92 not moved.]

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Clause 55 agreed to.

Clause 56 [Electoral Commission and Boundary Committee: reviews and recommendations]:

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin moved Amendments Nos. 93 and 94:

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Lord Greaves moved Amendment No. 95:

The noble Lord said: I shall also speak to Amendments Nos. 96 and 99 and the stand part in this little group. If I have understood the Bill correctly, an issue of substance here needs to be looked at carefully. These provisions are, as I understand them, about boundary reviews in areas with elections either twice or three times every four years—in other words, elections by halves or by thirds.

Many non-metropolitan districts—districts in two-tier areas where there is a county council and district councils—currently have a range of wards, from one member to three members. There are often quite a lot of three-member wards, but sometimes there are two-member wards and, particularly in rural areas, single-member wards. Some districts have predominantly single-member wards, such as Ribble Valley or Craven near the Pennines where I live, with a few multi-member wards in the towns. Other districts, such as Pendle or Burnley, have mainly three-member wards but may have, as Pendle does, some two-member and single-member wards.

If I have read the Bill correctly, authorities that elect in halves will have to have wards divisible by two and authorities that elect in thirds will have to have wards divisible by three. This would mean a substantial change in the existing pattern and would seem to me in these areas to be a mistake. The existing pattern of wards is deliberately there to reflect the geography of the place; there are towns where multi-member wards are appropriate and rural areas where they are much less appropriate, with a village or group of villages with just one councillor.

The purpose of Amendments Nos. 95 and 96 is to probe exactly what is proposed in the Bill and whether my reading of it is correct. Amendment No. 99 looks at the situation in metropolitan districts. If metropolitan districts are to be able to have wards of different sizes—which is apparently proposed, although I am not sure how it fits in with what I have just been talking about—this issue should be discussed. The proposal may be appropriate, particularly for any that move towards whole-council elections, although I do not think that there will be many. Taken together with the section that I have just been talking about, however, it appears that the choice is between three-member wards and six-member wards. In metropolitan districts, six-member wards would run the risk of being altogether too big. The amendments are a means of probing what these provisions mean with a view to determining later whether they are sensible or not. I beg to move.

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Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: I thank the noble Lord for his amendment and hope that I can give him further information to help him in his probing.

The Government oppose Amendments Nos. 95 and 96 because, where there are elections by halves, the wards should, where possible, have two councillors or a number of councillors divisible by two; where there are elections by thirds, the wards should, where possible, have three councillors or a number of councillors divisible by three. This is to provide equity of opportunity for electors at the ballot box.

In an area with elections by thirds, there will be elections in three out of four years in a full electoral cycle. If you have three-member wards in such an area, there will be elections in each ward in each of those three years and all electors will have a chance to vote at every election, giving them the opportunity to influence the composition of the council on each such occasion. However, if there are single-member and two-member wards, in those wards elections will be held in only one or two years of the full electoral cycle and voters in those wards would miss out on the opportunity to vote in years when voters in other wards would be voting. We believe that this should be avoided wherever possible.

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However, we have made having the appropriate number of councillors per ward desirable rather than mandatory. This is so that if the Boundary Committee believes that where, for example, there are elections by thirds, having three-member wards would not allow a particular community to be included wholly within that ward, thereby not reflecting the community identity criteria that I mentioned earlier, a different and more suitable number of members for that ward can be recommended.

In January 2004, the Electoral Commission stated that in principle it is fundamentally unfair and unacceptable that within an individual local authority some of the electorate should have fewer opportunities to vote and influence the political composition of the authority than their neighbours in a different ward. We are therefore providing within the Bill that, if there are not whole-council elections, the number of members per ward should reflect the electoral cycle unless for a particular ward the Boundary Committee believes that that cannot be achieved, notwithstanding the downsides that that would bring.

We do not believe that Amendment No. 99 is necessary. The Electoral Commission has stated that its current policy is to avoid wards with more than three councillors per ward as it believes that that dilutes accountability. There are currently no wards with more than three members in any principal council in England. Therefore, the intention of the amendment is already being met. However, we do not wish to reduce the options available to the Boundary Committee. In future, there could be peculiar circumstances somewhere in England where a four-member ward might best reflect the local community. Clause 48 removes the requirement in the Local Government Act 1972 that the number of councillors returned for a ward in a metropolitan district should be divisible by three. In future, the number of councillors

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returned for a metropolitan district ward can be whatever the Electoral Commission determines following an electoral review. That will bring the arrangements for metropolitan district councils into line with those for shire district councils.

Clause 58 is the result of a request from the Electoral Commission, which conducted a year-long review of the electoral review process. Following the review, the commission requested that it be given greater flexibility in metropolitan areas, and this clause delivers that. The amendment would reduce that flexibility, which would inhibit the independent Electoral Commission and the Boundary Committee in their desire to produce the most suitable electoral arrangements for the different areas of England. I hope that I have helped the noble Lord by giving him further information and that he now feels able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Greaves: I thank the noble Baroness for her reply. I am pleased about one thing in it, which is that my reading of what the Bill proposes is correct. However, I am not pleased about being correct, because the Government are fundamentally wrong. With the words “where possible” and so on, the noble Baroness makes it sound as if there will be a few exceptions here and there, but not very many, and that, where there are exceptions, the wards will be bigger to accommodate communities rather than smaller. I am not happy about that. It is a substantial, fundamental change for a number—I do not know how many, but I will find out—of shire district authorities that elect by thirds at the moment and have wards ranging from one to three members. Those authorities will find a significant change in their arrangements when we next have a boundary review. The arrangements that exist at the moment are there for good reasons, and usually accommodate the reasonable needs of rural areas. People do not feel cheated because they do not vote as often as other places, but if you ask them to weigh up the relative benefits of having their own councillor for a group of villages or having three councillors as part of a much larger rural ward, many like the arrangements as they are.

What the Government are trying to sneak through—it is not widely understood that this change is being put forward—is wrong. There may be circumstances where it is appropriate to have bigger wards in rural areas, but in many places people deliberately go for small two-member or single-member wards in those parts of a district where that is appropriate. I am grateful to the Minister for clarifying that my reading of the Bill was correct. For the moment I beg leave to withdraw this amendment, but some of us might like to have further discussions about this and come back to it on Report.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 96 not moved.]

Clause 56, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 57 [Duty of local authority to provide Boundary Committee with information]:

Lord Greaves moved Amendment No. 97:

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The noble Lord said: I can be brief on this new provision for the Boundary Committee to be able to require information from local authorities. As the clause as it stands says, that is entirely reasonable, but it does not say that the date that the Boundary Committee can set to get that information should also be reasonable. I am trying to put the word “reasonable” in twice. I beg to move.

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: I, too, hope to be reasonably short on this one. We do not believe that this amendment is necessary, as the Boundary Committee is required to act reasonably, as are all public bodies. The Boundary Committee would require this information as part of a review and we are confident that it would set dates that were reasonable within the context of the review that it was conducting. I hope that the noble Lord will consider withdrawing the amendment.

Lord Greaves: If the Boundary Committee has a general obligation to be reasonable, why is the word “reasonable” in the clause at all?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: Parliamentary draftsmen obviously felt that it was reasonable to include that, but I will check and give a full answer to the noble Lord’s specific question in writing.

Baroness Hamwee: I do not think that my noble friend was being frivolous either in tabling the amendment or in asking the question. It is just the sort of thing that lawyers can spend a lot of time on and build up a lot of fees over, if there is a problem. I speak as—

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: Before the noble Baroness sits down, let me say that I agree with her. That is why I would like to give the noble Lord a fully considered answer, which will be helpful to the whole Committee.

Lord Greaves: I am grateful for that. The Minister’s reply to me, if not to my noble friend, was almost exactly what I was going to say. This is about the way parliamentary draftsmen think things ought to be. It is not always clear why that is the case. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Andrews moved Amendment No. 98:

(a) in subsection (1)—(i) at the end of paragraph (a) insert “and”;(ii) omit paragraph (c) and the word “and” immediately preceding it;(b) omit subsection (2);(c) in subsection (3)—(i) omit paragraph (a);(ii) in paragraph (b) after “prepare” insert “and publish”;(iii) at the end of paragraph (b) insert “and”;(iv) omit paragraph (c);(d) for subsections (4) and (5) substitute—

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“(4) In conducting a review, the Boundary Committee for England may at any time before publishing draft recommendations consult such persons as they consider appropriate.(5) As soon as the Boundary Committee for England are in a position to submit recommendations to the Electoral Commission they must—(a) submit them; and(b) publish the recommendations and take such steps as they consider sufficient to secure that persons who may be interested in the recommendations are informed of them.”;(e) in subsection (6)—(i) for “the report on a review is” substitute “recommendations are”;(ii) for “(4) above” substitute “(5) above”;(iii) in paragraph (a), omit the words “a further report under subsection (4) containing”;(iv) in paragraph (b), for “report relates” substitute “recommendations relate”;(f) after subsection (6) insert—“(6A) Where the Boundary Committee for England submit recommendations under subsection (6)(a), they must publish the recommendations and take such steps as they consider sufficient to secure that persons who may be interested in the recommendations are informed of them.”;(g) omit subsection (8).

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 57, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 58 [Metropolitan districts: councillors per ward]:

[Amendment No. 99 not moved.]

Clause 58 agreed to.

Clause 59 [Change of name of electoral area]:

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 100:

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