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( ) section (Persons subject to notification requirements)(a) or paragraph 3A(a) of Schedule 6 (persons subject to notification requirements: age when dealt with for offence),
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, we are today considering the draft of an order to move the date of the local government elections in England in 2009
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As a result of this order, the 2009 election date for 34 principal councils in England will be moved. The councils are the 27 county councils in the remaining two-tier areas and seven unitary councils: Bristol City Council, the Isle of Wight County Council and the new unitary councils of Bedford, Central Bedfordshire, Cornwall, Shropshire and Wiltshire. The order will also move the elections in around 75 parish councils across England and on the Isles of Scilly.
In addition, the order will move the elections for directly elected mayors to be held in 2009 in Doncaster, Hartlepool and North Tyneside. Stoke, too, had a mayoral election scheduled for 2009, but the people of Stoke voted last Thursday that there should no longer be a mayoral model there. Therefore, there will not be a mayoral election in 2009 and the existing mayors term of office will end on the fourth day after 4 June. In place of the mayoral model, the leader and cabinet model will be implemented, in accordance with the proposals drawn up by the city council.
As approved by Parliament earlier this year, 1 April 2009 will see the implementation of nine new unitary councils. Of those nine new authorities, fiveBedford, Central Bedfordshire, Cornwall, Shropshire and Wiltshireare scheduled to have elections in 2009. The four new unitaries of Cheshire East, Cheshire West and Chester, Durham and Northumberland held elections in 2008.
As noble Lords may know, a particularly problematic situation has arisen in Cornwall. Let me explain. Following parliamentary approval of the restructuring orders in February this year, the Boundary Committee began electoral reviews of Cornwall, Shropshire and Wiltshire. Disappointingly, the committee has yet to publish its draft recommendations on Cornwall and has informed the county council that it will not be in a position to complete its review for elections on the new electoral arrangements in June 2009. All parties locally are in agreement that the first election to the new unitary authority should be on new electoral arrangements, including a new number of councillors. Therefore, although the 2009 elections order will apply to Cornwall County Council, my honourable friend the Minister for Local Government has indicated that he is currently minded to defer the elections in Cornwall. We will take soundings and consult those affected in Cornwall about the appropriate date for elections, which we expect will take place in October.
The order has no effect outside England. In 2009 there are no local elections for councils in Scotland and Wales. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has indicated that he will shortly bring forward legislation that seeks Parliaments approval to postpone the 2009 local elections in light of the planned restructuring of local government.
This order represents an important change, which will affect the 18 million people who will be eligible to vote in the local elections scheduled for 2009. Approximately 2,000 seats on principal councils will be contested. All electors in the UK will be eligible to vote in the European elections, and 72 Members of the European Parliament will be returned.
It is important to stress that this change has been founded on clear and extensive consultation. Our 12-week consultation on whether the local elections should be moved closed on 11 August, by which time we had received 278 responses. This included representations from the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Local Government Association, nearly 200 councils and a number of the political parties. Few were opposed to the proposal for the elections to be held on the same day. On 7 October, I placed in the Library a copy of our report, which summarises consultees views, sets out the Governments response to the issues raised as part of the consultation and provides the rationale for the change.
Some concerns were raised that, due to increased complexities in the administration of elections and the possible risk of voter confusion, the local elections should not be moved. Based on the responses that we received from, among others, the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators and local authorities responsible for administering elections, I am confident that local authorities and the suppliers with which they work will have the capacity to manage local and European elections held on the same date in June next year. I am also sure that, following the recent legislative changes that the Government have brought forward, sufficient work has been done to raise public awareness, which will reduce risks of voter confusion both at the ballot box and when distinguishing between the different issues on which people are being asked to vote.
However, despite these concerns being raised, the results of the consultation were conclusive, as I said. Moving the date of the local elections to the date of the European Parliament elections in 2009 is supported by the great majority of those who responded to our consultation. I am pleased to say that the Conservative Party stated in its response that, in the context that it spelt out,
The Local Government Association and many councils supported the move to holding the elections on the same day. The Electoral Commission and the Association of Electoral Administrators shared the view that the date of the local elections should be moved, provided that certain practical issues were addressed.
Why are we proposing to move the local election dates? There are four reasons. First, holding the local and European elections on the same day will be more convenient to voters, who will have to visit the polling station once rather than twice in a four-week period. We think that this will mean that more voters are likely to participate in the elections, which would be a very good thing.
Secondly, having both elections on the same day will avoid the start of the European election period overlapping with the end of the local election period. Were there to be such an overlap, it could be confusing for voters. One has only to reflect on the possibility that, a few days before voting in the council elections, voters might receive a new poll card with different details for the European election in the next month. We need to reduce and remove confusion.
Thirdly, holding two elections on the same day will reduce the costs incurred by local authorities, returning officers and political parties in distributing election material, contacting voters, canvassing and holding the polls. It will be more efficient and cost-effective.
Fourthly, holding the two elections on the same day is not only more efficient but likely to be more effective democratically. It will enable those responsible for voter awareness campaigns, particularly local authorities, to concentrate their efforts on increasing the awareness of one single election day. As I said, I think that that means that people will be more likely to turn out and vote. We all want to see increased participation.
It is our firm belief that both the local elections to councils and the European Parliament elections are important opportunities for the people of this country democratically to choose those who, in one way or another, will be responsible for decisions that will have a major impact on their day-to-day lives.
We have debated the role of local government many times in this House. We all agree that councillors provide strategic leadership to their communities. They deliver local services but, with partners, they have a central role to promote and secure economic prosperity. No task today is more challenging or more central to the concerns and interests of every local elector.
Equally, the European Parliament is not some irrelevant, distant body with no impact on peoples day-to-day lives; quite the contrary, it is part of the decision-making arrangements for tackling those big issuesthe environment, climate change, trade and employmentwhich affect the quality of life of everyone in this country and which can only be successfully tackled by working together at a European level.
Good EU legislation has removed barriers across Europe and raised social and environmental standards. In short, it is recognition of the importance of both elections that has led us to conclude that they should be held on the same day. Past evidence shows that it is right for local and European elections to be held on the same day. That is clearly demonstrated by the experience of the elections in 2004, when both were held on 10 June. The result was a significant increase in voter turnout. For the European elections in 2004, the voter turnout was 38.5 per cent compared to 24 per cent previously. For the 2004 district council elections there was again a significant increase 41 per cent compared to 30 per cent for the previous equivalent elections, held in 2000. The Electoral Commission reflected that by saying that,
However, I recognise that the Scottish elections in 2007, when two elections were held together, resulted in a number of problems. An independent review of the Scottish elections was conducted by Ron Gould, who made a number of recommendations in October 2007. We have taken them into account in our decision about combining the date of the elections. The Electoral Commission also concluded that the 2009 local elections should be held with the European elections and stated in its response that it was difficult to see how holding two elections four weeks apart was in keeping with the Gould reports overarching theme of putting the elector first, especially as Gould recommended that the decoupled elections be held one year apart, fearing voter fatigue if the elections were any closer together. We are only too aware of that in this Committee.
This draft order makes provision to address those issues. Most importantly, it provides, as proposed by many of those who responded to the consultation, for the European parliamentary elections in England to be administered by reference to local authority areas, not, as currently, by reference to parliamentary constituencies. It also provides that the local returning officer for those elections will be the person who administers local elections in that area.
The order also addresses a number of other consequential issues which those responding to the consultation suggested should be addressed. It contains the necessary provisions to enable elections to parish councils to take place alongside the principal council and European elections in June. It extends the term of office for sitting councillors and mayors. It provides that, from 7 November 2008, no by-elections will be required to fill casual vacancies of councils with elections in 2009. It also provides for annual meetings of joint authorities and parish councils to take place at a date later than currently required by statute.
To sum up, the order is widely supported, and there are clear and compelling reasons to hold both elections on the same day. It is an approach strongly supported by evidence, including from the 2004 elections. I commend the order. I beg to move.
Earl Cathcart: My Lords, I thank the Minister for explaining the order. When I was first asked to speak to the order I thought, Thats okay. It makes logical common sense; it is more convenient for the voters; only one visit to the polling station will be needed rather than two in two months; and it will be cheaper to administer. Therefore, I thought I should support the order and then sit down. Indeed, I was even prepared to discount the rumour that when they thought up this idea the Governments PR gurus did not want a hit of bad results in May followed by more bad news in June, preferring just one hit of bad newshence the order bringing the dates together. However, as I looked into the matter I realised that there were issues that needed a response from the Minister.
First, Article 5, which is entitled Elections to fill casual vacancies, provides that the provision should commence seven, not six, months before the June 2009 election. Why should sections of the electorate be unrepresented and disenfranchised for seven, not six, months? Why not just roll forward by one month? In another place John Healey said that it provides more clarity and certainty for the returning officers. That sounds like rather a weak answer. What is not clear and certain about six months before the election date? Some have rather mischievously suggested to me that the Labour Government would prefer to restrict the number of by-elections that they would lose. That seems rather cynical, so I am sure the Minister will want to give a better answer than the Minister did in another place.
Secondly, I was reminded of the shambles caused by the high number of spoilt ballot papers on previous occasions. I refer to the 2004 combined London election and also to the elections in Scotland in 2007 when confusion and spoilt ballot papers caused some anger, to put it mildly. The confusion arises because of the difficulty in understanding the different voting systems and ballot papers. We hope that lessons have been learnt. I understand that ballot papers must be separate and in different colours with clear instructions. Let us hope that the system works.
Thirdly, there is the issue of postal voting. In 2004 the north-west endured an all-postal system, which was a fiasco as some electors were sent the wrong ballot papers. Again I understand that lessons have been learnt so that this time there will be no all-postal elections. Postal votes will now form only a proportion of the votes, and the vast majority of votes cast will be at polling stations.
Fourthly, it has been brought to my attention that there is some confusion and uncertainty regarding Cornwall in that the Boundary Commission is being tardy in deciding the size of the new council. It has yet to produce its draft recommendations, so the Government have to delay elections for Cornwall from the beginning of June to the end of October 2000, some five months after the rest of the country. That seems to smack of incompetence. All these issues should have been ironed out before the new council system was put in place. What Cornish folk need is clarity; what they have got is total confusion and uncertainty.
Cornwall also raises the issue of Article 5elections to fill casual vacancies. Will Cornwalls date remain 9 November 2008 or will it be rolled forward? Not to roll it forward would mean that some of the electorate in Cornwall might be disenfranchised for 12 months rather than the existing six months.
Fifthly, the unresolved and unthought-out issues relating to the new unitary council in Cornwall raise uncertainty for other counties; namely, Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk. Their sentence is still pending and unresolved. Can the Minister confirm that their election will take place on Euro-day under the existing system? I should declare that I have been a councillor in Norfolk for the past 10 years.
I use the words sentence is still pending because the Government seem hell bent on imposing a unitary system on my home county of Norfolk against the
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Most people work on the premise that If it aint broke, dont fix it, but the Government seem to work on the premise that If it aint broke, lets break it, as ably demonstrated by the confusions in Cornwall. Why will the Government not listen to the people of Norfolk? That would be democracy. As regards the order, presumably Norfolk, Devon and Suffolk will continue with their preferred existing system until such time as the Government impose another system. What started out as a fairly simple order, as I thought, has raised a number of issues. On the whole, we support the order in that it is right to bring the dates together, but I should like the Minister to address my concerns.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, I thank the Minister for delivering the order to the House in person and taking a little time off from her day job on the Planning Bill, but perhaps this is light relief. Certainly, the number of noble Lords present and the nature of this event make it seem very different from our discussions on the European elections five years ago when we dealt with the Bill which led to the all-postal vote elections mentioned by the noble Earl. Those were highly controversial and the Bill ping-ponged vigorously between the two Houses. Indeed, I think that the number of times it ping-ponged remained a record for several years. The Government have seen sense over that and are to be congratulated on doing so. It is a pity that they did not see sense before the event, but never mind, sense afterwards is better than no sense at all.
The Liberal Democrats do not oppose the order; we would have brought along more troops had we intended to do so. However, I am a little less enthusiastic about the principle of it than was my honourable friend Andrew Stunell in the House of Commons Delegated Legislation Committee. The noble Earl said that the Government might be doing this because they did not want a hit of bad news. I do not know what will happen in next years elections. However, being the kind of freak who follows local council by-elections every week, I do know that in the couple of months since the party conferences, the party which has lost
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However, the principle of the order worries me a little. I am very wary of what I call the Governments messing about with electoral processes. We discussed that on the previous elections Bill, which became an Act that allowed the Government to do that. I understand and accept that they have gone through all the processes of consultation which Parliament pressured them to write into the legislation. Nevertheless, all Governments have to be very careful indeed about messing about with electoral systems administratively or through delegated legislation. If every five years the local elections are to take place on the same day as the European elections, which now seems to be the pattern, that should be put in the legislation so that we all know it will happen and it cannot be manipulated by any Government for party political reasons.
In principle I am in favour of separate elections for each kind of body on separate dates because that allows the public debate and the campaigns for those elections to focus on the issues that relate to those particular bodies. There is a temptation to say that local government elections are not as important as all the rest and that we can just bundle them in with something else. That devalues local government. Given the events taking place across the Atlantic today, 4 November, this is probably not the best time to argue this case given that the American electors, who apparently, will join huge queuesor lines, as they call them over therewill vote for umpteen different offices on the same day and on the same paper. However, our culture is different and I think that local elections ought to be kept separate as much as possible.
Having said that, I agree that there are some good practical reasons for combining them, particularly given the closeness of the elections and the overlap of the timetable, which I have no doubt would cause confusion and would certainly cause extra administration for local authorities and returning officers. I should declare an interest as I sincerely hope that I will not be a candidate in any elections that may take place in the spring, but my name will probably appear on leaflets as an agent for Liberal Democrat candidates in my area. From a practical point of view, the prospect of holding election campaigns in the warmer days and lighter nights of May, as opposed to at the end of March and April, is very welcome. Given that general elections are now often held in June, the Government ought to think very seriously indeed that the answer to all this may well be to move the ordinary day of local elections from May to June. I put that forward as a way of avoiding all the difficulties and problems which seem to come up year after year.
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