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The noble Baroness said: This amendment takes us to the clause dealing with the change of name of an electoral area. It would require the local authority to give at least two months’ notice of a proposal to change the name. I was prompted to pursue the matter because of my experience at London borough level. The ward that I represented for 20 years disappeared as a result of ward boundary changes, and so did its name. I was quite startled by the number of times local people asked me what had happened to the ward that was under that name.

The name is important—it is an identifier—and people can be quite strongly wedded to it because it expresses at a political level the place that they feel is theirs. Again, this is perhaps not the most important part of the Bill but, with a Government who talk a great deal about place shaping and so on, it is not insignificant either. I beg to move.

Lord Greaves: My Amendment No. 101 pursues some of the issues mentioned by my noble friend. Ward and division names are important. It was interesting to read the report of the House of Commons Public

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Bill Committee when it debated the issue. A number of Members of Parliament referred to the importance of names in a political context. There are several issues involved. The members of the committee were particularly concerned about the question of marginality, which, as they are Members of Parliament, I suppose they would be. A mixed composition ward might include a huge council estate and great deal of quite prosperous middle-class housing, and whether you name it after the council estate or after the prosperous housing makes a difference to the impression that people have of where that ward naturally lies in traditional political allegiances.

That is the clear message that came across from the discussion in the House of Commons committee. We know that it is true. If you name the ward after the council estate, it sounds as though it might be a Labour ward; if you name it after the posh area, it sounds as though it might be a Tory ward. The truth is, of course, that it might be a safe Liberal Democrat ward. But perception is important. In marginal wards, whether people think it is worth bothering to go out and vote is a crucial matter in local elections and can make a real difference to the result.

Amendment Nos. 100 and 101 run together. A change of name is an important decision and should require a two-thirds majority of the council. The Minister may say that we are being overprescriptive again and that we should leave this to local authorities. However, I come back to the point that I made on the first day of Committee that, for obvious reasons, electoral matters are different in kind from a great many of the other things that local authorities do. Decisions made about electoral matters can influence and determine the results of elections and the people making the electoral decisions may have a vested interest in them. I am not saying that they should not make such decisions, but they should have to think about them.

First, my noble friend and I are suggesting that there should be a statutory publicity requirement so that authorities cannot sneak through decisions. Secondly, I am suggesting that it should be more difficult to pass changes to ward names than to make decisions on most of the other things that local authorities do. This is a part of the electoral process and the impositions on local authorities ought to be greater than they are.

Baroness Hanham: Until the amendments were moved, I was happily thinking that the clause would do but, having listened to some discussion on this issue, I think it is right that where a ward is changed—whether its shape, size or boundaries—and the name changes with it, the people who will be within it should be given a reasonable opportunity to know what that name is going to be. The Bill as it is constructed says that a meeting must take place in order for those names to be confirmed, but it does not actually say a meeting of what. Presumably it is either a meeting of the council, in which case the council can make the decisions, or a local meeting that can be attended by people who live in the ward. Whichever it will be, it seems perfectly sensible and reasonable that the amendment being moved is placed within the

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context of the fact that people need to know about the name changes. The council has a duty to ensure that people know the names of their electoral areas. I support the amendment.

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Lord Graham of Edmonton: My experience is such that I cannot believe that a council faced with some evidence to bring about changes would try by subterfuge to produce those changes without consulting the people affected. The councillors themselves have a vested interest, for the very good reasons set out by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, such as historical attachment.

A name that identifies an area is either posh or otherwise in the minds of the electorate, and they will not take kindly to suddenly discovering that the place where they reside is named differently. As I understand it, the council that has the power to do that would be ill advised to do so and cause a furore, because the political consequences could well be quickly visited upon it and its political complexion. The Minister can help the Committee by explaining the advantage of the amendments to the present situation. At present the council is allowed, in the light of empirical evidence, to decide that there is a need for a change and to propose and effect that change, but only by taking along with it the people who are affected. Although the Minister and others have used the term “far too prescriptive”—that is, there are too many tiny details—there are some people who want everything in tiny detail.

As an ex-councillor, I think councils ought to be given some credit for their political sense in appreciating that changes, which from the town clerk’s point of view may seem to be administratively sensible, need to be looked at in the light of the effect upon ordinary people. I do not have a view on the value of the amendments. I agree with what has been said. The present Local Government Act under which we are operating gives ample provision for the local council to make its decisions, with safeguards. People who control councils are not politically stupid. They know the consequences of what they are doing. If they behave unreasonably—or politically, with a large “P”—they deserve all they get.

Baroness Hanham: This is getting more exciting as each moment passes. Who will be at this meeting? Where will it be held? Who will conduct it? The noble Lord, Lord Graham, has experience in local government that goes back to the previous Local Government Bill and perhaps further, when there were committees responsible for things like this. However, these days, the cabinet could take this decision quite easily without consulting anyone else. An overview and scrutiny committee cannot take it and the council has no role in taking it either. Who will the resolution be passed by and on behalf of whom?

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: I hope that I can help the Committee by briefly explaining what Clause 59 does. It allows a local authority to change the name of any of its electoral areas—district wards or county divisions—by resolution of the authority at a special meeting. That is our interpretation of the clause. Where the name of an electoral area is protected, a resolution

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cannot be passed until the Electoral Commission has agreed to the change. The name of an electoral area is deemed to be protected if it has been specified under the Acts in subsection (6)(a) within the past five years. Particular circumstances protect some areas.

The current position is that the name of an electoral area can be changed only by the Electoral Commission following a full electoral review, which takes about 12 months. We are making that change following an evaluation of the periodic electoral review process. The Electoral Commission requested the change. It considers that given that the council can change the name of the district, the parishes and parish wards within the district, it should also be able to change the name of the district wards. This is part of devolving power and flexibility to local authorities. Local authorities should be able to change the names of their electoral areas as they see fit unless they are protected, as I said.

On the point made by the noble Baroness Lady Hamwee, the Local Government Act 1972 already makes provision for the procedural requirements for meetings of local authorities so the question of notice is already covered. It includes requirements about notice and voting. We do not think that it is necessary to supplement the existing provision in this Bill with regard to that issue.

As I said, I agree with the Committee that names are important and the issue can be emotive. We accept that, but we are trying not to be too specific or prescriptive, as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, suggested I might say. The aim is one of devolution; to trust local authorities to act reasonably and consult those parties who are interested. We will discuss Clause 139 tomorrow, but in this provision we are trying to devolve decisions to local authorities. We do not consider that a two-thirds majority should be required for a name change in an electoral area. It is unlikely that a name change would be of interest to all members of the council and it would be too great a restriction on an authority to require a two-thirds majority.

I hope that the noble Baroness will consider withdrawing her amendment. I am glad that this matter is interesting. How names are changed is important, and I do not want to diminish its importance by saying that we need to trust local authorities to act reasonably.

Baroness Hamwee: The debate provoked more involvement than I expected, but I am glad of that. The noble Lord, Lord Graham, suggests that we should rely on the good sense of the local authority. I shall not go down the road of debating with him whether every authority is full of good sense, but there are certain procedures and notice periods that it is right to make statutory. The Minister referred to the 1972 Act, which I believe includes the five-day notice—but perhaps she can confirm that. Five days is somewhat different from two months, which would allow for some public discussion of the matter. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 101 not moved.]

Clause 59 agreed to.

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Clause 60 [Power to change date of local elections to date of European Parliamentarygeneral election]:

Lord Greaves moved Amendment No. 101A:

“(a) in subsection (1) omit paragraphs (a) and (b) and after the words “Wales and is” insert the words “the second Thursday in June.”;(b)”

The noble Lord said: This amendment is at the beginning of a string of amendments in this group, all of which refer to the notice that has to be given if the Government wish to change the date of the council elections in a year when there is a European election so that it takes place on the European election day—usually the second Thursday in June—instead of the first Thursday in May. The exception is Amendment No. 101A, which heads the group, to which I shall return.

All the amendments reflect the view that it might be a good idea to have the two elections on the same day but that some notice needs to be given so that everybody knows what is going on, not least the candidates, the political parties, the electoral registration officers and the returning officers. There is a dispute over whether the period should be six months, which I understand the Government will propose in their amendments, or one year, as the Electoral Commission proposed—which in different ways some of my amendments suggest, as well as the amendments of my noble friend. We will have the interesting discussion over whether it should be six months or one year, but there is a general view that the period should be in the Bill.

Amendment No. 101A is slightly more ambitious. It would be over-egging it to say that it was a probing amendment, but it floats an idea in the hope that that might generate a discussion outside the confines of this House.

Three years ago the local elections took place on the same day as the European elections. It was a glorious May and June, and the experience of taking part in those local elections in that fine weather, with light evenings right up to nine o’clock at night and not having to go out canvassing or delivering leaflets in the depths of February, March or April on dark nights, was really delightful. From the point of view of encouraging participation in elections, it would be sensible if we thought about moving the ordinary election day to June. It might also increase turnout. That was certainly the experience in June 2004. Turnout was up in those elections and there were various reasons for it. There were four all-postal pilots, which detained your Lordships' House for some time before it agreed to them. They certainly increased the turnout a little in those areas where they took place. However, the turnout went up in other places as well.

A comparison of the different regions, and of Scotland and Wales, and the different circumstances in those areas suggested that the increase in turnout was down to three things. Some of it was down to the all-postal pilots—perhaps about 5 per cent. Some of it was down to having the European elections and the local elections on the same day, so that those people who cared about local elections also went to vote in the European elections and those people who cared more

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about European elections found themselves also voting in local elections. That appeared to account for another 5 per cent. However, even in areas where neither of those things applied and where an ordinary election took place at the polling stations, the turnout was up by about 5 per cent.

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There was a clear indication of an underlying increase in turnout at those elections. I do not think that anybody has worked out exactly why it was, but I firmly believe that it was because the elections were in June. A lot more campaigning was taking place because of the better weather and better circumstances, and a lot more voters turned out. The Government are keen on increasing the turnout and think of all kinds of strange gimmicks which most of us think are pretty hopeless and do not work, or are dangerous, such as all-postal voting. However, moving the local elections four or five weeks into the summer would do that. It would not have an unfortunate effect on the running of local authorities. Local authorities managed perfectly well in 2004, with an annual meeting a month later, and I am sure they would do so again.

I float the amendment as an idea rather than as a serious matter that I expect the Government to agree to immediately today. However, it is a move that we and the local government community, as it calls itself nowadays, should think about generally. I beg to move the amendment, to allow debate on the group.

Baroness Hanham: I have Amendments Nos. 103 and 108 in this group, which probably pre-date what the Government are going to propose. It is interesting that there is a proposal in the Bill that we should muck about with election dates. We have had a great many debates in this Chamber as elections have moved for various reasons. I well recall the moving at short notice of the date of the general election due to the foot and mouth crisis.

If we are to accept that dates will from time to time be changed, we have to accept also limits within which those dates can be moved unless a national emergency arises. National emergencies do not normally arise where local government elections are concerned. If the European elections are to be taken as the base on to which local elections could or could not be moved, we need a long lead-in. A year is probably a little over the top—I am sure we can debate the virtues of whether it should be a year or six months ad nauseam. However, there must be time, as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said, for returning officers to be able to prepare, for them to get two lots of ballot papers ready for the counting to be arranged, and for all the administrative tasks that have to be done for elections.

However, I hope that this will not become the normal course of events. I accept that if one has a couple of elections thrown together at the same time, more people may turn out to vote in them, but there is a danger of people of becoming election-weary and just turning up because it is any old election and saying, “It doesn’t really matter whether it is the European election or it’s the local elections because they are all there together and, well, we might or we might not go”. We still want to encourage people to

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think carefully about what they are voting for and why. Our vote is still extremely precious and should be used in a way that is precious and is recognised as such.

This is a permissive clause that allows the Secretary of State—under an order if necessary or required—to consider moving the date. I hope that it remains permissive only and does not become a regular event. However, if it has to be used, I will propose that at least six months’ notice is given.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: Amendment No. 105 seeks to address the same issue; namely, the proposed power for the Secretary of State to move the date of local government elections to coincide with, that of European ones. My amendment seeks to alter the proposed six-month period to one year.

I want to make it clear that I am only discussing the proposed power to coincide the date of local and European elections. It is not about a wider power to move the date of local elections. I have some sympathy with the sentiments just expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. As a former county councillor, I fought two county council elections on the same date as general elections. There is no doubt that issues become clouded and that county seats are won or lost on general election issues. That is a pity. It tends to add to the general sense that local government is somehow secondary and much less important than national government. Nevertheless, if one takes the view, which the Government clearly have taken, that the next set of local elections should be held on the same date as European ones, there are some merits in having a year’s notice period.

From the Government’s point of view, I frankly cannot see the problem with a year’s notice because we know the dates of both those elections. However, it makes a difference from the point of view of councils. For example, council members who are due to retire will need to know that they have to serve an extra month. That might not sound very long. However, people sometimes move away or become less active as they come to the end of their terms of office.

If they are expected to serve out an extra period, there are questions about the level of representation. A year’s notice gives the councils much more flexibility to alter standing orders and change dates of annual meetings and budget arrangements. The fact that the Electoral Commission is supporting one year’s notice should at least give the Government pause for thought that this might be a good idea. A year would be consistent with the existing legislation, the Representation of the People Act 1983.

A general climate of cynicism exists about the manipulation of dates. The noble Baroness referred earlier to—heaven forfend—the idea that parish council election dates might be manipulated. If so, I am sure that that accusation could be levelled even more here, whereas a year takes some heat out of that.

Lord Graham of Edmonton: I have been waiting for someone to refer to the Scottish experience earlier this year, when an attempt was made to be neat and tidy and convenient for the electorate. It turned out to be a mini-disaster because there was confusion, lethargy, pigheadedness, or whatever it was.

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We are genuinely attempting to bend over backwards to meet what we believe is the convenience of the electorate. Sometimes the electorate are not all that interested. I certainly think that having two elections on the same day is the maximum that we can expect people to absorb. If there are both European and local elections, there is a fair gap between the two so they will not be confused in the minds of the electorate.

As for the question of six or 12 months, I come down on the side of six months. The Electoral Commission recommended 12 months but everyone concerned who is a political animal—there are very few of them about, and their number is diminishing—watches these things and looks for advantages and disadvantages and for someone pulling a fast one and all the rest of it. But events happen and things have to be taken into account. Six months is a decent period in which to give notice. After notice is given by order, that is the law and it has to be carried out. I fully understand the benefits and advantages of trying to minimise the number of times that electors have to go to the ballot box. On balance, I think that the Government’s proposals in the Bill are just about right.

Baroness Hamwee: We might find that we are talking about three sets of elections: European, local and even more local in the shape of parish councils, just to pick up the noble Lord’s point. I had not appreciated until quite recently just how much preparation is required by the returning officer and those working for the returning officer—the council officials—to book places for polling stations and a place to hold the count. I am talking partly about the London experience, the scale of which makes matters even more difficult. An enormous amount of work goes on behind the scenes, which even those of us who are closely involved do not appreciate. Time and again I have heard returning officers and those who support them complaining about the late notice that they receive from central government about small changes in the rules. They know that the changes are coming but they cannot act until the change is incorporated in an order.

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