Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

We had much discussion of this issue in Committee and the Minister kindly explained the Government’s thinking, which seemed a little confused. She said that the Government felt strongly that when a council elects by thirds, it is best that each ward should vote at each election, allowing electors in all parts of the district to vote at the same time and to have an equal chance of influencing the overall composition of the council. I am talking mainly about non-metropolitan district councils and some unitaries. However, she said that the Government did not wish to make that mandatory and that it would be a matter of looking at the specific circumstances in each council when a boundary revision took place.

We are talking mainly about single-member wards in small village communities in rural areas in relatively small councils. In such areas there are many single-member wards in councils that elect by thirds. I am not sure exactly how many there are, but 80 non-metropolitan districts elect by thirds, of which at least half have single-member wards. The arguments on each side are this. Some years ago, the Electoral Commission produced a report that, in a fairly academic way, said that, ideally, all electors should take part in each election. On the other hand, single-member wards work well in some rural areas because they allow the relationship between the councillor and the rural village to be much stronger. We have single-member wards in such places, simply because during past boundary reviews this was thought by local people to be the best way forward, due to the relationship between these rural areas and councillors. Multi-member wards would be geographically large, and it would be better to have smaller wards with fewer councillors.

The purpose of tabling the amendment at this late stage in the Bill is to try to get the Government to give a clear statement of their thinking and what approach will be taken if there is a Boundary Committee review in certain authorities. My reading of Clause 56 is that there will be a very clear presumption in favour of three-member wards—or two-member wards in areas that elect by halves. I am not clear what the exceptions to that might be. The amendment tries to take out of the equation an assumption either way, and tries to put on to the statute book a situation in which local opinion will count and the local circumstances will count in each case. It tries to take a balanced view.

22 Oct 2007 : Column 882

I am therefore trying to take out the word “appropriate”. Although I understand that the way in which the word is used in the clause can be regarded as just a technical matter—whether it is appropriate to have two or three, according to how the council elects—the word is full of value judgments, and people will read that wording as though it is appropriate to have either a two-member or a three-member ward but not a single-member ward. I am trying to replace the word “appropriate” with the word “divisible”, a totally non-judgmental word that is already in the Bill, to describe the situation in the wards concerned. So in one sense this is a very technical matter, but in another sense it is very important.

This is one of the proposals in the Bill that people on the ground simply do not understand are being made. People will find out too late that single-member wards in rural districts—which they have become used to, which have become accepted as part of the local political scene and which they want to continue—may no longer be possible because what they will see as an obscure clause in the Bill was passed and no one noticed. I am asking the Government to notice and to put the clause on a more even keel. I beg to move.

4.45 pm

Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, I hope I can reassure the noble Lord. I appreciate that this is the first opportunity we have had to discuss his concerns because this amendment was not moved on Report, so I hope I can take him through the Government’s thinking in some detail. We do not believe there would be any benefit in applying the noble Lord’s amendment as it would have no material effect on the Bill. The word “appropriate”, which appears in Clause 56(2), is clearly defined in Clause 56(3).

The noble Lord asked me to clarify the Government’s reasons for introducing these provisions and I am happy to do so. I remind the House that decisions on electoral arrangements are matters for the Electoral Commission following recommendations made to it by the Boundary Committee for England. It is therefore for those bodies to decide what the number of members per ward should be when conducting electoral reviews. I know that the noble Lord is well aware of that.

The Government have brought forward Clause 56 because we believe that where community identities can be represented, effective and convenient local government provided and equality of representation delivered, it is desirable that all local government electors should be able to vote in all local government elections in their area. As I said in Committee, the Electoral Commission stated in January 2004 that it was fundamentally unfair and, in their view, unacceptable that within an individual local authority some electors should have fewer opportunities to vote and influence the political composition of the authority than their neighbours in a different ward. Where there are elections by halves and the wards have two councillors, and where there are elections by thirds and the wards have three councillors, equity of opportunity to electors is provided at the ballot box.

22 Oct 2007 : Column 883

Having said that, I can deal with the noble Lord’s specific concerns. If there are elections by thirds and you have three-member wards in the area, all electors will have the opportunity to influence the composition of the council at each election. We believe that that is desirable. Where there are single-member wards and elections by thirds, electors will be able to vote in only one of the three elections held during a four-year electoral cycle. We believe that, where it is possible to avoid this situation, it is desirable to do so.

The noble Lord asked us to clarify when single or two-member wards might be recommended where there are elections by thirds. As I have already explained, decisions in individual areas are for the Electoral Commission to make.

I hope that the rationale behind Clause 56 will be seen as straightforward. It has been drafted to ensure that the Boundary Committee and Electoral Commission will be able to continue to reflect the individual circumstances in each local authority area. The statutory criteria within Section 13 of the Local Government Act states that the committee and commission shall have regard to the need to reflect the identities and interests of local communities, the need to secure effective and convenient local government, the need to secure equality of representation and the desirability of securing that each ward in the district returns an appropriate number of councillors.

There is a distinction between “need” and “desirability”. We have ensured that having the appropriate number of councillors per ward is desirable. If—I think that this is the situation that concerns the noble Lord—the Boundary Committee and the Electoral Commission cannot reflect the community identity and interests of an area and provide equality of representation and effective and convenient local government while providing for the appropriate number of councillors, then we would expect them to recommend a different number of councillors. We agree with the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that it is important that electoral arrangements reflect the local circumstances. If, having conducted an electoral review of an area with elections by thirds, consulted local people and considered the evidence before it, the Boundary Committee decides that it is not possible to meet the statutory criteria with anything other than two-member wards, it will be able to recommend that.

We strongly believe that the Boundary Committee and Electoral Commission should at least be required to consider—I emphasise “consider”—whether it is desirable, when weighed against the other statutory criteria, for every elector to vote in every election. Where there are elections by thirds and the Boundary Committee can recommend a two-member or three-member ward and the other statutory criteria can be met by both, we believe that it would be desirable for a three-member ward to be recommended as it would allow the electors in that ward to vote in every election.

Finally, I clarify that this clause does not apply to councils which hold whole-council elections because, where those elections are held, every elector votes in every election once every four years. Noble Lords will

22 Oct 2007 : Column 884

recall that councils operating whole-council elections can make a request to the Electoral Commission for an electoral review to provide for single-member wards under Clause 55, if they so choose.

I hope that I have successfully explained why the provisions in Clause 56 have been brought forward. The noble Lord said that this is a small issue but we have tried to give it the justice that it deserves. I appreciate his concern and have attempted to emphasise the important roles of the Boundary Committee and Electoral Commission. I hope that, with that full explanation, the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Greaves: My Lords, I am grateful for the Minister’s response and for the effort that she has made to engage in a proper discussion of the different issues. I still do not think that the Government have tackled the real questions of community interests and identity which lie behind this. I am grateful for the assurance that “appropriate” and “divisible” mean the same thing in this context and that it is non-judgmental in that sense. That will help.

It is down to the Boundary Committee and the Electoral Commission to come up with recommendations, and they make those recommendations in the context of the legislation. There is absolutely no doubt that if the balance has not been shifted entirely to one end of the spectrum—and I understand from the Minister’s comments that that is the case—it has nevertheless shifted some distance along. If this provision is passed, it will not be where it was. That continues to concern me.

I know that the Electoral Commission said that it is fundamentally unfair and unacceptable for some wards not to poll when others do. I have only ever heard that argument from the Electoral Commission. I have never heard anyone in areas that poll by thirds and which have single-member wards in rural areas complain about it. They ask questions such as, “Are we up this year?”, and “Why not?”, but nobody is marching in the streets waving placards about the issue. It is an academic issue that was invented by the Electoral Commission when it produced this report—which, frankly, everyone thought had been put on a shelf and forgotten about. Although it is a small issue, it is a big one in the 50 or 60 local authorities where it will apply and where in future they will find that the system has changed. And they may not like it. There will not be a huge amount of bother and people will not march in Whitehall with placards when it happens, but some people in some places will be very upset by it. Despite what the Minister has said, which is helpful, I think the Government have been misguided in the wording of this clause.

I shall not press the matter further today. I am not someone who keeps bound copies of Hansard around the walls of my house but occasionally I mark and file away copies in the hope that I will remember where they are when these issues are raised. This is one such issue and I can assure the Minister that her words today may be quoted in the future. I thank her for her answer and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

22 Oct 2007 : Column 885

[Amendment No. 6 not moved.]

Clause 59 [Change of name of electoral area]:

Baroness Andrews moved Amendment No. 7:

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 62 [Executive arrangements for England]:

Baroness Andrews moved Amendment No. 8:

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 63 [Discharge of functions]:

Baroness Andrews moved Amendments Nos. 9 and 10:

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Clause 64 [Changing governance arrangements]:

Baroness Andrews moved Amendments Nos. 11 to 22:

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Clause 66 [Elected mayors]:

Baroness Andrews moved Amendment No. 23:

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 68 [Power to make incidental, consequential provision etc]:

Baroness Andrews moved Amendment No. 24:

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 70 [Interpretation]:

Baroness Andrews moved Amendments Nos. 25 to 28:

On Question, amendments agreed to.

22 Oct 2007 : Column 886

Clause 74 [Further amendments & transitional provision]:

Baroness Andrews moved Amendment No. 29:

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 76 [Appointed councillors]:

Baroness Scott of Needham Market moved Amendment No. 30:

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, on Amendments Nos. 30 to 32, I return to the question of appointed parish councillors. Noble Lords will recall that we on these Benches have considerable concerns about this Bill introducing into local government a new category of councillors: appointed councillors. From the start, we need to emphasise that town councils, including parish councils, are a tier of local government and should not be treated as subordinate or lower quality in any way. We therefore need to take any provisions applying to them very seriously indeed.

The National Association of Local Councils does not support this measure. It has said that, while it will work with the Government to make it work, it does not particularly approve of it. I imagine that the national association recognises that it is important in localities that the local council enjoys the moral support of the community it serves. The problem is that it is often not just important to be completely above board, but to be seen to be so. The problem with the appointment process is that there is always a danger that it will be said in local areas that particular individuals were appointed because of who they know or because they already had friends on the council. It is going to be difficult, both for them as individuals and the for the parish council as an entity, to deal with this new category of appointed councillors.

There have been some inconsistencies in remarks from the government Benches. Like my noble friend Lord Greaves, I have been re-reading Hansard. First, through the debates in Committee and on Report, I am still unable to get any sense of who wanted this provision—who has requested it—and what its genesis is. It does not appear to have come from the National Association of Local Councils. Local councils are currently able to use co-option, which is done fairly frequently in areas where, for example, insufficient people put themselves forward after a set of elections; sometimes members are co-opted to make up the numbers. The principle of co-option is well understood, but it is not clear why this new category has appeared. In Committee, the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, said:

We currently have co-opted and elected. The Bill introduces a third category, and I fail to see how the noble Baroness can claim that introducing one makes it clearer to anyone.

22 Oct 2007 : Column 887

I have repeatedly asked the Government to explain what an appointed councillor will be able to do that a co-opted councillor will not. The answer I have had is that appointment will be for those who are not eligible for co-option; the one example has been for under-18 year-olds, who can be appointed to a council. I am sure that that is very well and good, although it will be interesting to see how many are in fact appointed to parish councils in a year or two’s time. Beyond that, the Government have not been able to give any examples of the sort of people who could come forward for appointment and not co-option. I am concerned about, for example, whether people will still have to be resident in the area or whether they could be drafted in from some distance outside.

There is another inconsistency because, although it is not in the Bill, we have been led to understand that one of the criteria by which a parish council will be judged good enough for quality parish status will be the health of its governance arrangements. Again, it is difficult to get a sense of good governance arrangements and mandate if a number of the councillors are going to be appointed.

We do not know how many people will be allowed to be appointed on to a parish council. In Committee, my noble friend Lord Greaves asked the Minister whether it is going to be a third. The Minister said that the Government imagined something rather less than a third. The point is that we do not know because it is not in the Bill and is left to regulation.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page