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23 Mar 2009 : Column 484

Lord Elystan-Morgan: My Lords, perhaps I will be pardoned if I do not join with the noble Lords, Lord Kingsland and Lord Thomas of Gresford, in the icy welcome that they gave to the Green Paper and the Statement. If one looks at the views expressed by juridicial constitutional writers over the past century, one finds such a huge range of views expressed that one could well say that it was a muddled situation. I have not read the Green Paper but it seems to me that it refers to both the treasury of possibilities that exist and the thicket of problems that are clearly attached to almost every consideration. Perhaps I may therefore ask the Minister the following. Even though it is sensible and inevitable that there should be no legislation before the next election, will he consider publishing even before the next election a White Paper—not a paper of pristine whiteness; a paper possibly with green edges—that sets forth some leadership on the part of the Government on this crucial, central question which is the heart and kernel of it all, as to whether the rights and responsibilities that we are talking about should be of a declaratory nature or whether they should have the binding force of legislation.

Lord Bach: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his support. The initial plan is for the consultation responses to be submitted by 15 June, in 12 weeks’ time. We will use the evidence gathered from written responses for our proposed regional events, which will take place over the summer and into early autumn. We need to discuss with the devolved legislatures their position on this. As I say, we do not propose to bring forward any legislation in this Parliament. Before legislation is brought there will undoubtedly have to be a White Paper, and probably a fairly pristine White Paper in this case. I fear that that White Paper may well not emerge until after the election.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the greatest threats to our civilisation, perhaps the greatest threat, comes from violent Islamism? Does he further agree that all must be equal under our law, including women, gays and those who wish to convert from Islam to another faith, and that Sharia law should therefore not be allowed to go on holding sway in this country? Will this or any more urgent legislation achieve that?

Lord Bach: My Lords, Sharia law does not hold sway in this country.

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, the Statement refers to paying taxes as a responsibility. However, the duty to pay taxes is not mentioned in the Green Paper. If we are to have a bill of responsibilities as well as of rights, should not the use of artificial tax avoidance schemes be made a breach of the responsibilities in that bill?

Lord Bach: My Lords, I am delighted to say that I think the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, will be playing a leading role in the debate that will take place on this Green Paper.

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Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill [HL]

Bill Main Page
Copy of the Bill
Explanatory Notes

Report (Second Day) (Continued)

5.21 pm

Clause 51: Boundary Committee for England

Amendment 101

Moved by Lord Tope

101: Clause 51, page 38, line 20, leave out “Boundary Committee for England” and insert “Local Government Boundary Commission for England”

Lord Tope: My Lords, I shall speak also to the other 44 amendments in this group that are in my name and the name of my noble friend Lady Hamwee. Mention of 45 amendments in one group seems sufficient to clear the Chamber. I reassure noble Lords that 40 of these amendments say exactly the same thing and relate to the name of the proposed body.

The Bill refers to the Boundary Committee for England, but 40 of these amendments change its name to the Local Government Boundary Commission for England. These amendments are supported by the Electoral Commission, and the change that they would make makes sense. The capacity for confusion between the present Boundary Commission and the Boundary Committee for England is obvious, and that confusion must recur again and again. The only explanation I have heard offered for choosing this name was that it was the most minor change possible. Generally it seems preferable to make as little change as possible. It does not seem sensible to seek to cause the greatest confusion possible.

Although the proposed name of the Local Government Boundary Commission for England is a little longer, it has the great merit of actually describing what it is and what it does. Giving a body a clearly descriptive title is obviously desirable. It would also bring it into line with the Local Government Boundary Commission for Wales and the Local Government Boundary Commission for Scotland. To have a similarly named body for England also seems sensible.

I hope that I shall achieve some success today in getting the Government to accept 40 amendments from me. At that point I may well decide to quit. I see that that is very tempting to the government Front Bench. I did not mean it.

Amendment 106 refers to the appointment of the chairman of the committee—or the commission, as I hope it will be—being made on the recommendation of the Secretary of State. The Electoral Commission has some concern, which I share, about the continuing part to be played by the Secretary of State. That does not mean that there are doubts about any individual, past, present or future. However, it is important that these matters are not only done impartially but seen to be done impartially. We therefore propose that the appointment should be made on the recommendation of the House of Commons rather than the say-so of the Secretary of State. It may seem like a small change, but it is an important one to ensure that absolute impartiality is seen and is beyond question.

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Amendments 107 and 108 relate to the appointment of the deputy chair. The post is important, and should the chairman be unavailable or cease to be able to hold that office, the role of the deputy chair will clearly be as important as that of the chair. We therefore propose that the same appointments process and procedure should take place for the deputy chair as for the chair.

The effect of Amendments 142 and 143 is that there should be no transitional arrangements. The Electoral Commission and the Boundary Committee are very concerned indeed that if there is a gradual process of separation, the period of uncertainty for their staff and others will be all the greater. They state very clearly that they see no need for this period and that the transfer should take place cleanly on the specified date.

All of the amendments are sensible and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s acceptance. I beg to move.

Lord Patel of Bradford: My Lords, I must admit that the noble Lord’s earlier offer nearly made me jump to my feet, and it is a shame that he withdrew it.

Let me first address the amendments in relation to the name of the new body. When introducing these provisions we sought where possible to minimise change, as the noble Lord, Lord Tope, said. As a result, we were of the view that the existing name should be retained. There is of course an argument that changing the name of the Boundary Committee will in itself cause confusion. However, I recognise that retaining the name of the Boundary Committee for England could also result in continuing confusion with the Parliamentary Boundary Commission for England, which deals with parliamentary constituencies and is commonly known as the Boundary Commission. There have been occasions in the past where those in Parliament and members of the public have been confused about the separate roles of these two bodies.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, and the Electoral Commission have put forward the name Local Government Boundary Commission for England, which is of course in line with the names of the Local Government Boundary Commission for Wales and for Scotland. I assure the noble Lord that we will give full consideration to whether the proposed name is appropriate. On a technical point which I should draw to the House’s attention, despite the noble Lord’s best endeavours, the amendments as they stand remove references to the existing Boundary Committee, which would need to be retained. We would also need to ensure that all references to the Boundary Committee are captured if we agree that a name change should be made. I hope the commitment that we will give further consideration to the proposed name change provides the noble Lord with the assurances he requires to withdraw his amendment at this stage.

I should now like to address the amendments to Schedule 1, which relate to appointments to the new body. First, in relation to Amendment 106, I set out in Grand Committee why we believe that the Secretary of State should be responsible for recommendations to Her Majesty on the appointment of ordinary members of the new Boundary Committee. The Secretary of State’s role in making appointments to such bodies is

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well precedented and is, in our view, wholly appropriate in this instance. I gave clear assurances during the debate in Committee that the appointments process will ensure that impartiality and independence are maintained. The Secretary of State would of course adhere to the guidance of the Public Appointments Commissioner.

As I set out in Committee, there will be oversight and audit of the process by the Public Appointments Commissioner; recommendations for appointment will be based on recommendations from a panel of officials, including an independent person; and a process of advertisement and executive search will be followed. In addition, by providing the Secretary of State with a role, knowledge of the local government sector will be brought into the appointments process.

The Electoral Commission has stated that these assurances have allayed its fears about the appointments process for ordinary members. I hope, therefore, that the noble Lord’s fears can also be allayed and that he will withdraw Amendment 106.

5.30 pm

For the same reasons, it is not necessary for the deputy chair to be appointed following an address from the House of Commons. I set out in Committee that it is essential that appointments to the new Boundary Committee are, and are perceived to be, politically impartial, independent and unambiguously made on merit. This clearly applies to the post of deputy chair. Paragraph 3 of Schedule 1 provides for the Secretary of State to designate one member of the Boundary Committee for England to be the deputy chair. The deputy chair must therefore be an ordinary member and will have been appointed by the process that I have just set out.

On that basis, I have been able to address the concerns of the Electoral Commission, initially in relation to the appointment of ordinary members. I see no good reason to remove the Secretary of State’s role in designating a member of the Boundary Committee to be a deputy chair. Indeed, as I indicated in Committee, we see nothing objectionable in the chair of the new body being appointed by the Secretary of State, so we see no good reason for her not to be responsible for deciding which of the members that she has recommended will be appointed deputy chair of the Boundary Committee.

An appointments process that involves the Secretary of State is at least as likely to deliver our aims of appointments being politically impartial, independent and made on merit as a process involving votes in another place. The Electoral Commission has stated that the Speaker’s Committee should be responsible for the recruitment of the deputy chair. The Speaker’s Committee gave its broad support to the Bill following its introduction. However, it is meeting today to consider its provisions in more detail. This will include what, if any, role it should have in the appointment process.

The Government will of course take into consideration the views of the Speaker’s Committee, particularly in those areas where the Bill provides it with a role. However, until the views of the Speaker’s Committee

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are known, we should not table amendments to provide it with a role that it may believe is unnecessary. Thus, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.

Finally, the noble Lord sought clarification on the transitional provisions, which are set out in Clause 60 and Schedule 3 to the Bill. These transitional provisions relate only to the process by which the Boundary Committee’s final recommendations become electoral change orders. For example, the Boundary Committee will remain the statutory committee of the Electoral Commission and its staff will continue to be Electoral Commission employees until the new body is established.

I will expand on the explanation that I gave in Committee. Clause 60 and Schedule 3 make transitional provision for the existing Boundary Committee to exercise its function in relation to electoral boundary work, without the involvement of the Electoral Commission, prior to the establishment of the new Boundary Committee for England. Schedule 3 provides for a transitional period, starting on the day that the Act is passed and ending with the establishment of the new Boundary Committee for England, which we expect to happen on 1 April 2010. During the transitional period, the procedure for implementing recommendations made by the existing Boundary Committee for England is modified so that it does not require the involvement of the Electoral Commission. This ensures that the Electoral Commission ceases to play a role in electoral boundary matters at the earliest opportunity.

As I set out in Committee, the key recommendation of the Committee on Standards in Public Life was that the Electoral Commission should concentrate on its core functions, hence the removal of its role from electoral boundary work. The Electoral Commission has stated that the process currently envisaged would involve a gradual separation, resulting, as the noble Lord said, in increased uncertainty for both staff and stakeholders. The provisions in Schedule 3 are clear. They remove the Electoral Commission’s role and replace it with the new parliamentary procedure. This will involve work for the Boundary Committee in preparing for the new procedure, but I cannot agree that there will be uncertainty about what the procedure is.

The Electoral Commission has provided us with an indication of the recommendations that it expects to receive from the Boundary Committee in the next 12 months. It has informed us that, based on the latest plans, it expects the committee to make final recommendations in the electoral reviews of Cornwall in September, Northumberland in February, and Durham in March. Both the Electoral Commission and the Boundary Committee argue that, since they do not expect to make any orders in this period, there is no need for this transitional provision. Clearly, that argument can be turned on its head. If they do not expect to make any orders, why do the transitional arrangements present any difficulty? Indeed, the transitional arrangements in the Bill provide clarity so that electoral change orders can continue to be made in accordance with the new procedures, if and when they are approved by Parliament. We are yet to be convinced that we should, in effect, introduce an artificial moratorium period where electoral change orders cannot be made. That is the key issue.

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Were the transitional arrangements not in place, Parliament would have legislated for a new procedure that removed the role of the Electoral Commission, yet the commission would continue to be able to make its orders. It is clearly a matter for the Electoral Commission to decide if and when it chooses to make electoral change orders until such time as a new process is put in place. We continue to believe that it is right that, if and when Parliament approves the Bill, the new more accountable system should come into effect straight away. This will give greater clarity and confidence to local councils.

We are grateful to the Electoral Commission for providing information on the level of work that is expected in this period. We also note the Electoral Commission and Boundary Committee’s concerns. However, to date, we have seen no compelling arguments for why the transitional arrangements that we have proposed would cause the Electoral Commission or the Boundary Committee any particular difficulties. Of course, they will have to develop new working practices to enable them to deal with Parliament instead of the commission, but these are not insurmountable. Indeed, given the small number of ongoing electoral reviews, they will be making the transition at a low point in their work programme. Having said that, we will continue to discuss all of these matters with the commission and the committee, but I hope the House will agree that, at this stage, Clause 60 and Schedule 3 should stand part of the Bill.

Lord Tope: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for a very full reply. On the question of the name and the 40 amendments that apply to it, I understood the Minister at least to express sympathy with the point that is being made and to give an undertaking to look at it. Of course I understand that the Government must be sure that, if it is to be done, it is done properly and in all the right places. I hope very much that they are able to do that in time for Third Reading so that when the Bill leaves this House we have at least achieved a name change here, and do not have to go through the same process all over again in another place. I am grateful for that.

I am also grateful for the explanation on the other points that I raised. They were points of concern raised by the Electoral Commission itself. As the Bill progresses, I am sure that discussions between the department and the Electoral Commission will continue. I hope that these concerns can either be allayed or met during the passage of the Bill. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 101 withdrawn.

The Deputy Speaker (Baroness Fookes): My Lords, when we come to all the other amendments, to save reading out every single one, may I assume that the noble Lord will not wish to move any of them?

Lord Tope: My Lords, the Deputy Speaker may so assume.

Amendments 102 to 105 not moved.

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Schedule 1: Boundary Committee for England

Amendments 106 to 108 not moved.

Clause 52: Review of electoral arrangements

Amendments 109 to 114 not moved.

Clause 53: Requests for review of single-member elected areas

Amendments 115 to 119 not moved.

Clause 54: Review procedure

Amendments 120 to 124 not moved.

Clause 55: Implementation of review recommendations

Amendments 125 to 127 not moved.

Clause 56: Transfer of functions relating to boundary change

Amendments 128 to 131 not moved.

Clause 58: Transfer schemes

Amendments 132 to 135 not moved.

Clause 59: Continuity of functions

Amendments 136 to 141 not moved.

Clause 60: Interim provision

Amendment 142 not moved.

Schedule 3: Electoral change in England: interim modifications of the Local Government Act 1992

Amendment 143 not moved.

Clause 64: Interpretation

Amendment 144 not moved.

Clause 65: Local authority economic assessment

Amendment 145

Moved by Baroness Warsi

145: Clause 65, page 48, line 1, leave out paragraph (b)

Baroness Warsi: My Lords, I will also speak to Amendment 146. These amendments, which, I am delighted to see, have been endorsed by the Minister, are designed to keep ownership of economic assessments with the local authorities that conduct them. They get

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rid of the overbearing role of the Secretary of State, which would have allowed her to tell a local authority to revise any aspect of an assessment that she did not like. Quite why this should ever have seemed like a suitable idea is unclear. In Grand Committee my noble friend Lord Hanningfield made it clear that he would be totally against the Secretary of State directing these assessments, because they should be conducted to assess the economic needs of the local authority, not the needs of the Secretary of State, which might be very different. I am pleased that the noble Baroness has taken our advice that these powers are not necessary and I welcome their removal from the Bill. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, we have Amendments 147, 151, 152, 153, 154 and 155 in this group. They follow those moved in Grand Committee, to which my noble friend Lord Greaves and the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, spoke quite forcefully about the position of non-unitary districts. We think that having a duty to undertake an economic assessment is unnecessary, like much of this Bill, but we were told that,

It was confirmed that the powers are within local authorities’ current powers but that,

We were also told that there are clear advantages in having one body in the lead.

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