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If we had time, I would like to have a debate on the origins of this practice and a debate on the origins of male circumcision too, which is very interesting. It is being questioned in some circles nowadays. It is said that it started as a public health measure to stop irritation and infection when men did not wear Y-fronts. Women certainly did not have underwear. Is it conceivable that back in the mists of time, it was in some way seen as a healthy or hygienic practice? I do not know, but we all know how it is interpreted nowadays and we have heard from many noble Lords that it is, in a sense, to control women. Both practices are in my view violations of the rights of the child. They are against the human rights of children, who are unable to give their consent, and the practices should stop.
Some of us may have heard recently that a brave teacher in Bristol has encouraged a group of girls in her care from different cultural backgrounds who have experience of FGM to make a film called "Silent Scream", to which I draw the attention of the House. It has its premiere at the Watershed Cinema in the centre of Bristol tonight; it will then go online. I am glad of the opportunity to publicise it. However, this teacher has received little support, with parents and colleagues condemning her for allowing the girls to make the film. I ask the Minister what the Government will be doing to encourage teachers to do this sort of activity and make these sorts of films with their pupils.
I have just a few more questions before I finish. Why has not a single prosecution taken place in this country, compared to the 50 prosecutions that have taken place in France? Where are the support services for girls who have undergone this procedure? Currently there are only 16 such facilities in the UK. What will happen under GP commissioning-who will be responsible for this? What training is being organised for teachers and the police? Where are the statistics on FGM and why are they not collected? Lastly, why has the cross-government FGM co-ordinator post been abolished? I hope that the Minister can answer these questions.
Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I, too, welcome the initiative of my noble friend Lady Rendell in instituting this debate and for championing this issue for many years. We owe her a great debt. As in
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I ask the Minister to respond to the point raised just now by the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, as to the reason for there being no prosecutions at all, and whether we can learn anything from other countries such as France, if indeed they have been able to find ways to prosecute? It would be very interesting to know whether her department has been able to undertake some research into the experience of other countries.
My noble friend Lady Rendell suggested a public awareness campaign. Will the Government support this, including, as she said, films showing the pain and suffering caused by this dreadful practice? In her opening remarks, my noble friend mentioned a DVD that she supported. I have seen it-it is very telling. Will the Minister give support to such initiatives and to the initiative mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, by a schoolteacher in Bristol? It was very concerning to hear that, far from being supported, she had come in for criticism. This is extremely disappointing.
Fantastic work is being done in clinics. Can the Minister assure me that a way will be found within the new health service structure to ensure that those clinics continue to be funded and supported? The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, raised the issue of police funding. We know that one of the consequences of cuts to police funding has been the closure of specialist units. There is a real problem with prosecutions-will the Minister consider whether there is a need for some kind of regional or national unit to gather expertise to advise police forces generally? The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, also mentioned the role of the Children's Commissioner. Will she consider that, as well as his suggestion about the need for education for refugees?
I also ask the Minister to respond to my noble friend Lady Kennedy about practitioners in this country because it is clear from what we said that there are some who are involved in these practices. My noble friend's analysis of the causes was very helpful.
Picking up a point made by my noble friend Lord Parekh, what work are the Government doing in relation to UK communities, particularly men and boys in those communities? The noble Baroness, Lady Stern, mentioned the Kenyan experience. It would be helpful if we could establish whether the work being done there would be relevant to the UK. I also pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, about DfID programmes, which I thought was very important indeed.
Finally, my noble friend Lady Gould asked whether the Government would develop a long-term strategy. I ask the Minister to consider that very carefully indeed.
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Baroness Verma: My Lords, I join all noble Lords in paying tribute to the dedication of the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, to this cause and her widely respected work towards the elimination of female genital mutilation. The noble Baroness illustrated so vividly the horrors of this practice and I hope that I will have time to respond to the noble Baroness and other noble Lords' questions. If time does not permit, I will write to noble Lords.
This debate is absolutely crucial for women and girls across the world. Female genital mutilation is a form of child abuse which this Government are committed to eradicating. Similarly, the UN Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women has clearly denounced the practice of FGM in its general recommendation No. 14 on female circumcision. The UN General Assembly's resolution of January 2002 on traditional or customary practices affecting the health of women and girls called upon all states to ratify or accede to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and to adopt national measures to prohibit harmful traditional practices such as FGM.
We have to protect girls from this abuse and ensure that all those living with the consequences of FGM are given the care and support they deserve and so badly need. Front-line professionals who have responsibilities to safeguard children and protect adults from the abuses associated with FGM play a vital role in identifying children and young women who are at risk or who have been subjected to FGM. It is unlikely that any single agency will be able to meet the multiple needs of someone affected by FGM and therefore it demands a multiagency response.
Similarly, the coalition Government have recognised the need for a joined-up approach to tackle FGM and this method has been successful in drawing together, co-ordinating and driving work from a number of government departments. We are trying to raise awareness of this barbaric practice and have made progress. However, our key focus is prevention and we have undertaken considerable work in the past year across and between nine government departments to advance efforts to prevent and tackle FGM in the UK and around the world. In February, the Government launched multiagency practice guidelines on female genital mutilation for front-line professionals such as teachers, GPs and nurses. The guidelines aim to raise awareness of FGM, highlight the risks of the practice and set out clearly the steps that should be taken to safeguard children and women from this abuse. This is a key step towards ensuring that professionals are able and confident to intervene to protect girls at risk.
We know that FGM causes significant harm to the physical and mental health of girls in many ways, which many noble Lords have raised today, and increases the risk of life threatening complications during childbirth for both the mother and baby. There are 15 specialist
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The Royal College of Midwives has identified FGM as a key issue to its members and is conducting a survey of midwives to understand more about the numbers of women being seen by health services and the training needs of health staff. The results will be used by the Royal College of Midwives to input into national strategies and plans, and to provide better support to midwives by way of providing information and appropriate educational resources. We applaud this and other such initiatives.
Communications about FGM are key to bringing the issue to people's attention. More than 40,000 leaflets and posters have been circulated to schools, health services, charities and community groups around the country. This is not the only method we are using to raise awareness and we know that it is not an end in itself but a foundation on which to build. Guidance has also been issued to British embassies and high commissions to protect British girls and women at risk of FGM overseas. We must be clear that the long-term and systematic eradication of FGM in the UK will require practising communities to abandon the practice themselves.
Through the regular government-chaired female genital mutilation forum, we will work with the well established network of FGM civil society organisations to co-ordinate activities and input into government policy-making as well as to examine how we can support and facilitate their engagement with practising communities in the UK. We have reached out to work with a range of charities and civil society partners active in this area. Their wealth of experience has been absolutely crucial in shaping our work and we thank them for their input and for sharing their expertise with us. It has been an excellent example of partnership working that we are keen to continue going forward.
Looking forward, we will continue to examine how FGM can best be included in existing statutory training for professionals, and to offer other areas of specific, tailored training to the relevant agencies, both of which are key to the prevention and tackling of female genital mutilation. There have also been some successful initiatives from the police. The Metropolitan Police's Project Azure work at Heathrow, which speaks to families potentially taking the girls overseas for FGM, has strengthened our last line of defence for these girls.
The noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, referred to the interesting work being done with the Metropolitan Police at the Lilian Baylis Technology School in Vauxhall, which was approached to take part in a female genital mutilation film project. In further illustrating the project, it was decided to hand the film production over to a
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We need to tackle this issue at its root. By reaching out to children directly, we can hope to change the mindset of our future generations to ensure that when these girls become mothers they will abandon the practice for good. While FGM needs to be addressed in a comprehensive manner by all parts of society, change must come from the communities which carry out this practice, and we commend and applaud communities which have taken a strong stance on this issue. Internationally, we recognise that FGM is a serious problem and the Government's aid programme is committed to empowering women and girls, including preventing violence against women and girls, including FGM where appropriate.
The Government will support sensitive measures to counter all forms of gender-based violence internationally and will support measures to eliminate FGM indirectly through their core funding of the key UN agencies that address FGM-namely, the United Nations Population Fund, the United Nations Children's Fund and the World Health Organisation-as well as supporting NGOs which focus on tackling FGM. Closer to home, we will also work with other EU member states and EU institutions to examine how and where the EU can add value to global efforts to tackle FGM.
The Government are frustrated by the lack of prosecutions in the 25 years that female genital mutilation has been illegal in the UK but the success of the legislation cannot be measured only by the number of prosecutions. We hear anecdotally that the legislation has been a deterrent, stopping families from proceeding with their plans to have FGM performed on their daughters.
Legislation alone cannot eliminate the practice altogether. Families and communities need to take ownership of the issue and must help to stop committing this terrible crime. Prosecution after the fact, although desirable, does not relieve the victim of a lifetime of pain and discomfort. We want to prevent FGM from happening in the first place. Despite the lack of prosecutions, the Act is intended to deter this unacceptable practice and anecdotal evidence suggests that it has had some deterrent effect. The Act has also provided an impetus for outreach work with the practising communities and has been widely used to raise awareness among the police, judiciary, health
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Research suggests that the most likely barrier to prosecution is the pressure from the family or wider community that leads to cases going unreported. Victims may be too young and vulnerable or too afraid to report offences to the police or to give evidence in court. Family and community pressure can make it very difficult for girls to come forward to notify the police about what has happened to them. We recognise that more needs to be done.
The Crown Prosecution Service will shortly issue new guidelines for prosecutors on FGM to ensure that the CPS is able to prosecute cases of female genital mutilation that satisfy the evidential and public interest tests within the Code for Crown Prosecutors. Together with police training, we hope that every case of FGM can be investigated and, if it meets the relevant evidential and public interest tests, prosecuted to ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice. We hope that the publication of these guidelines will be the first step towards a successful prosecution in the UK really to press home the point that we will not tolerate the unacceptable abuse of girls and women in this way.
I can see from the clock that I will run out of time. I made a heap of notes and I now undertake to write to noble Lords. I conclude by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, for initiating this debate. I hope that it is noted and goes some way to ensuring that this important issue remains on the agenda in order that girls and women are protected and this unacceptable form of abuse is eliminated for good. As always, this subject highlights the expertise and the passion for which this House is known and respected across the globe.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Hanham): My Lords, I would just say that in the Library are a number of documents which have been laid for the attention of the Committee.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, in moving Amendment 120B, I shall speak also to the other eight amendments in this group, which are in my name and in the name of my noble friend Lord Tope, who will arrive in a minute, I hope.
Although we have debated only two groups of amendments so far, we have made quite a lot of progress in discussing the issues around the proposals for referendums. These amendments address the question of who can call referendums under the provisions of this chapter. We approached the question of
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This suite of amendments would delete those parts of the Bill that allow referendums to be called by a small number of elected councillors. It would also delete the provision that an elected mayor, whether in London or elsewhere, could call a referendum. It would also, perhaps for different reasons, delete the provisions that allow a council itself to call a referendum. I will take those points in order.
in a multi-member area can call a referendum. It is not clear whether councillors for adjoining wards could join together and jointly call for the same referendum in two or more wards. I put that question to the Minister.
Last Thursday we discussed the danger-so I will not go into it in great detail now-of councillors using referendums in their wards as a tool for re-election, calling a referendum on a populist issue on the same day as they are due to face the electors. An equally dangerous prospect is rivalry within a ward, if perhaps two out of three councillors called a referendum in order to do down the election campaign of a colleague of a different party. A further problem is that wards do not necessarily, and very often do not, match communities.
For all these reasons, many of us find undesirable the possibility that a small number of councillors-one, two or three-can call a referendum in their part of the borough and, as long as it fits the provisions of the Bill, the council will not be able to stop it. The arguments apply equally to elected mayors, who could quite easily call populist referendums to coincide with their own re-election or to boost their popularity. There seems no reason why a mayor should call a referendum about issues that relate to the mayor's powers because the mayor can address them without a referendum.
As far as the resolution of the council is concerned, these provisions seem unnecessary. Councillors can call referendums at the moment under their existing general powers, and presumably they will continue to be able to do so. They are also able to make arrangements appropriate to the particular referendum that they might want to call. We were given an example in the King's Lynn area where a referendum called by the district council cost £80,000. It resulted in an overwhelming majority one way, and then the county council ignored it. The argument for not having a referendum on the basis of the resolution of the council is that it is not necessary, and the council can do it anyway without being constrained by the detailed rules and regulations in this Bill.
My final point is that the Bill suggests that referendums can take place within a ward or an electoral division or they can take place in a whole area. However, if you think about towns such as Keighley, which is a clearly separate town within the city of Bradford, why should it not be able to have a referendum, if we are going to have referendums, in a clear community like that? In the case of Burnley, Padiham is a clearly separate town in the Burnley district, but it consists of two wards and bits of other wards; so why should it not be able to have a referendum in the natural community rather than the artificial wards? I beg to move.
Lord Beecham: My Lords, I endorse most of what the noble Lord has suggested. In particular I entirely concur with his view that the provision for council members to requisition a referendum is apt to lead to mischief and is unnecessary. It is open to the whole council to choose to have a referendum if it wishes. Perhaps the Minister would confirm that it would even be the case in a mayoral council, that the council as a whole could pass a resolution for a referendum. However, to extend that principle to individual members is unnecessary and likely to be a source of considerable nuisance as well as expense. I hope that the Minister will feel, on reflection, that that particular part of the Bill can be safely abandoned without prejudice to the rights of the public at large.
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this debate and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for tabling these amendments. I should reassure him that councils in neighbouring wards can get together to hold a referendum covering a community. I cannot help the way that warding is done. Generally speaking, we have to have building blocks in local government and the ward system is the one that is used, but under the provisions of the Bill it would be possible to hold a referendum that just addressed the interests of Keighley or Burnley, which he illustrated.
Perhaps I can address the implications of the amendments and say why I will resist them. Amendments 120B, 120C, 126ZZA, 128QA, 128R, 128VA and 128W would remove the provisions that would allow councillors to call for local referendums and councils to pass a resolution to hold a referendum. These amendments would have the effect that if an authority were keen to hold a referendum on a local matter, it would not be able to use the powers to hold a formal referendum conferred by the Bill and would only be able to use the rather informal powers contained in Section 116 of the Local Government Act 2003. We accept that local authorities have the power to hold advisory polls under Section 116, but those polls are limited to the council's services or its expenditure on such services and are therefore not as far-reaching as the provisions in the Bill.
We want to enable councils to hold referendums on any issue of local importance. We believe that as leaders in their areas, it is right for them to be able to do so. It is open to a council under the provisions to hold a referendum on any matter. However, any decision must be taken within the parameters of administrative law. It would need to be a rational decision with reasoned grounds for it. In answer to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, these provisions apply also to mayoral councils. Clearly it would not be rational to hold a referendum on a matter about which no practical decision would be possible by those who were able to take the decision. For example, a decision on whether the country should invest in a programme-the illustration that I have here is rather far-fetched, to send a person to Mars; I am not sure who the drafters of this text had in mind-would not be a rational subject for a referendum by a local authority. Further, the local authority would need to consider very carefully the holding of a referendum on a matter over which it, its partner authorities or the people of the locality had little or no influence. It is not rational for the authority to incur the cost of a referendum which can serve no possible purpose.
I do not see any great advantage in denying authorities access to the referendum framework that we are setting up under this Bill if they want to use it. Nothing in the provisions that my noble friend seeks to omit imposes any obligations on authorities, so I urge him to withdraw the amendment and to support the localism that they promote.
Some of these amendments, Amendments 129K and 129L, refer to the mayor as a member, and I am grateful to my noble friend for bringing them forward. They would remove elected mayors from the definition of "member", meaning that they could not use the power in Clause 45 to call for a referendum in the area of the council that they have been elected to lead. In fact, this may not be such a great hardship for elected mayors, since they could initiate a referendum by seeking a resolution of the authority under Clause 50. I accept the point made through Amendment 129L-to remove the Mayor for London from the provisions set out in Clause 58(2)-and we will want to consider these points carefully with a view to returning to them at a later stage. I thank my noble friend for submitting those amendments.
Lord Tope: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Unless I missed it, I do not think that he addressed the particular concerns referred to by both noble Lords, which is what happens with split wards. What would happen to a three-member ward where two are from one party and the third is from another? In my own borough, one-third of the wards are in that position, so it is a significant point. A long time ago I was an opposition councillor, and I would suspect that in the run-up to the council elections, which in London is only a one-in-four-year opportunity, it would be almost irresistible for two opposition councillors seeking to oust their third, unwelcome friend from another party, to seek to trigger a referendum, if only to force the majority party to turn it down shortly before the election. I am sure that that is not what the Government have in mind. I speak with the confidence that none of the opposition councillors in my borough will ever read Hansard and know that I am saying this, but I suspect that this is a tactic that may well enter the minds of some. It is not what the Government intend. I therefore wonder whether we ought not to think a bit more about tightening the provisions to prevent what I must not call frivolous campaigning, but very opportunistic opposition campaigning, by whichever party, because I am sure that, in opposition, we would all do it. Perhaps we should consider that point.
Lord True: I apologise to my noble friend for missing his opening remarks. I referred to this on an earlier amendment so I will not labour the point, but I agree strongly with the points made by my noble friend Lord Tope. In these circumstances the councillor power needs further examination, and I hope that my noble friend will be prepared to consider that. On the question of area and ward boundaries which my noble friend referred to, the reality is that, in many cases, as real localism emerges, people will choose areas that do not coincide with the boundaries of wards. We as an authority accept that we are defining areas in terms of what local people have chosen as their communities. Indeed, the most recent referendum held in our authority did not follow ward boundaries but community boundaries, and people participated in it enthusiastically. I do not want to press my noble friend further on the point, but the language of the "electoral area" used in the Bill, whether at this point or elsewhere, could create serious obstacles to the actual implementation of localism in the way that communities would choose. I hope that my noble friend will consider that further.
Earl Cathcart: My Lords, I cannot quite understand where we are, which is why I got up before. Earlier this week I moved Amendments 125 and 126, which provided that a councillor could not call for a referendum unless he had a petition signed by 5 per cent of the electorate. I have before me the Hansard report where the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, said:
"I believe that the safeguard we have in place-that, following a request from a member, a referendum may not be held unless the full council has resolved that it be held".-[Official Report, 28/6/11; col. 1746.]
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: Indeed I can confirm that, and I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, because both he and my noble friend Lord Cathcart asked me about it. I will repeat what I said: councillors may call for a referendum, but it will go ahead only if the full council decides that it should. However, the points raised by my noble friends Lord Tope and Lord True need some consideration. The Bill makes no reference to a political party. It does not even talk about controlling councils or membership of groups because that is not the principle on which this piece of drafting was done, and indeed my noble friend Lord True will understand that sometimes it is difficult to provide definitions in legislation. I have explained that our building block is the ward system.
We are going to go on to talk about neighbourhood planning in the future, and it will be useful to consider this debate in the light of that. Meanwhile, we will consider the point made about the risks that could be involved. However, my noble friend Lord Cathcart has kindly given me an opportunity to explain that the whole council has to approve whether a referendum at the bid of an individual councillor or group of councillors should go ahead.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, I am grateful to everyone who has taken part in this short debate and for what the Minister has said. While the question of a council being able to call a referendum under these provisions seems unnecessary and more in the way of detailed prescription, I understand that it is not a significant issue. The one significant issue that has come out of the debate is the question of whether individual members should be able to call referendums in their own wards. I just want to take the Committee through what the Bill says.
Clause 45 is about a request for a referendum by members. It says that a request complies with this section if a member for a ward-or, if it is a multi-member ward, a majority of members for that ward or division-asks for that referendum. That is subject to Clause 46(2):
The way in which the local authority, the council, treats a member request as far as grounds for determination-that is, deciding whether it can go ahead-is exactly the same as if a petition is received. We will discuss some of the stuff in Clause 47 a little
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"(ba) where the principal local authority is the Greater London Authority, it is duly signed-
(i) by the required percentage of local government electors in each London borough, and
(ii) by the required percentage of local government electors in the area of the Common Council of the City of London,"
(a) where the principal local authority is not the Greater London Authority, the petition does not comply with subsection (1)(b), or
(b) where the principal local authority is the Greater London Authority, the petition complies with neither or only one of paragraphs (b) and (ba) of subsection (1)."
(a) that the name of each person on the petition is that of a local government elector who is registered at the address stated on the petition, and
(b) that the signature of each person on the petition corresponds to that on the electoral registration form signed by that person."
Lord Rennard: My Lords, this amendment stands in my name and in the name of my noble friend Lord Greaves. I shall speak also to Amendment 129A, Amendment 129H and Amendment 188 within this
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On Tuesday, we listened to many discussions about how many signatures should be required to trigger a request for a referendum of this nature. Apart from the arguments over whether it should be 5, 10, 15 or 25 per cent, it is of considerable importance that, if we are collecting any signatures demanding that such a referendum be held, we know that the people signing petitions are on the electoral register, on it on the relevant day and that their signature on the petition matches what is recorded by the electoral registration officer. That is as will be the case in future for all voters with individual voter registration but is at present the case only with postal voters. At the moment, people sign nomination forms for elections but it is not possible to check their signatures. There are so few signatures required on a nomination form that it is possible quickly to make enough inquiries to see whether those signatures really are the signatures of those people nominating a candidate. However, if in future we are going to trigger perhaps expensive referendums requiring dozens, hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of signatures, we must have a process for checking that they are genuinely the signatures of local electors. There will be nothing to check that these signatures are really the signatures of those people until we have individual voter registration in place. We will have it before the next general election campaign. Otherwise, there will be accusations that small groups of people may be able to fill in the forms with different signatures from names that they simply find on the register. There will be no effective way of checking that they really are the electors that they are supposed to be.
I have often argued in this House that we need greater security in our election process. We do not really know how much abuse there is of the election process. If more people knew how easy it would be to cheat on some of our election rules, there would perhaps be much more cheating in elections. The previous Government moved and this Government are moving to tighten up our electoral processes as a safeguard against potential fraud. We should have proper safeguards against fraud in relation to these petitions.
For example, there have been a lot of problems with the Electoral Commission dealing with donations made to political parties from people on or perhaps not on the electoral register. One of these amendments makes plain that you should be on the electoral register if you are signing this petition-not simply that you should be entitled to be on it. This principle was a matter of significant debate when we considered the Political
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Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, before we consider the implications of these amendments, it is important to remember that we are not actually talking about voting in the referendum itself but about the petition. It is the view of the Government that it is up to a local authority to determine the validity of any referendum that is presented to it.
Amendment 120G would introduce a new layer of bureaucracy requiring that an electoral registration officer must validate each petition to check the names, addresses and signatures of each person who signs a petition. This potentially places a significant burden on the ERO and could lead to delays in the holding of a referendum. An authority will clearly be able to check signatures on the petitions if there is a serious thought that it might be filled with forgeries but it must be for the local authority to decide how it wishes to do so. The authority may consider it unnecessary to verify every signature before it can determine whether the petition is a valid expression of local opinion. Those authorities that wish to devote their time and resources to check each signature may do so. The Government's view is that most will take a sensible approach. There is no need to impose this extra burden.
It would also be impossible for local authorities to comply with the amendment at present. As my noble friend Lord Rennard admitted, our voter registration does not require the signatures of each elector on the voter registration form, only a signature from one member of the household. As such, local authorities do not hold the signatures of each individual voter, as this amendment would require. My noble friends may have sought to address this point through Amendment 188, which provides that the whole chapter on local referendums cannot be commenced until universal voter registration has been introduced. This would delay commencement of the local referendums regime and thus delay giving local people the mechanism to make their voice heard on issues that matter most to them. I do not believe that is the thinking of the coalition.
Amendment 129A suggests a drafting change to the definition of who would be entitled to vote in a local referendum, probing why we have used the form of words that are currently in Clause 54(1). The answer is somewhat technical: there are some categories of people who are local government electors but who are not entitled to vote in a local election; for example if they are in prison.
Amendment 129H would restrict the category of person who can sign a petition calling for a referendum to those who are registered by a particular date specified in the petition. This is just the sort of procedural
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I therefore hope that with these assurances the amendment will be withdrawn. There is no requirement for a signature as part of our plans for individual voter registration because that would prevent registration by phone or e-mail, for example, which may be included in those proposals. With those considerations, I hope that the noble Lord will be able to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Rennard: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his clarification of government thinking on these issues, which I might cheekily paraphrase as saying, "Whatever high standards we have for policing our democratic elections, those should not apply in relation to the gathering of petitions that may require these referendums". I might ask him for a little further clarification on the issue of being on the register or entitled to be on the register, given that he cited specifically the case of prisoners. Those who are in prison are not able to vote in elections. Is he suggesting perhaps that they should be entitled to sign these petitions? That thinking seems a little muddled, if that is perhaps the case. I continue to have reservations about whether petitions that may be costly to the public purse should be triggered without more safeguards than the Bill currently provides. On that note, I am happy to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, this simple amendment would allow a referendum to take place in the area of a parish council which did not coincide with ward boundaries of either the county council electoral divisions or a district or borough ward. This amendment is not about a parish council conducting a referendum or about the existing provision for parish polls. There is an amendment about those matters later on. It suggests that there may well be circumstances-in my view, there are lots of circumstances-where, if there are to be local referendums, a parish is the appropriate area for the referendum to take place.
There are many examples of where parishes are grouped together to form ward boundaries for principal councils yet those parishes are often more natural communities than are the wards themselves. That is why parishes are as they are, whereas wards are arbitrary and have to be within a certain size. Therefore, very often, wards do not reflect one natural community. They might reflect a series of natural communities or slice communities in two-that very often happens.
Where parishes consist of a village or a small town it is often the case that they are the appropriate unit to hold a referendum if that is what people want and that provision exists. By definition, parishes will consist of one or more polling districts, which exist in order to be able to hold parish council elections. I therefore suggest that even if the referendum applies to a principal council, at whatever level, it ought to be possible to call a referendum within a parish area, rather than what may be a much more cumbersome and inappropriate ward boundary area. I beg to move.
Earl of Lytton: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, will doubtless have expected that the words "parish council" might cause this particular old pike to rise from the depths. I see where he is coming from, although I initially felt that this could loosely be reclassified as "Son of Clause 56 stand part". I appreciate that he has made a distinction which prevents me from pressing that in particular. I will leave most of my comments for the question on Clause 56, because there is a generic process about parishes and how they fit into the thing.
I am a little concerned about inserting the principle regarding parish into something that relates to principal authorities. I question whether it rightly sits there, bearing in mind that the Bill proposes that the Secretary of State can make a separate set of provisions for parish councils. It seems to me that there are very good reasons for that, because we have to be rather careful about what template we are using for the purposes of referendums, so I question whether the insertion of the reference to a parish here is the right one, unless the intention is to eliminate Clause 56 altogether.
Lord True: My Lords, on this point there is of course a fundamental difference between how parishes are viewed inside and outside urban areas. I understand all the misgivings as far as rural parishes are concerned and do not wish to follow along that line, but it would perhaps not be wise to add my noble friend's suggestion to the Bill. I point out that in the recent referendum in my own authority which I referred to, the area chosen for it was in fact the boundary of a parish because that ran across more than one ward. It is not right to write that into statute but it reinforces the point that I and other noble Lords made earlier: that some power to enable local authorities to define an area, which might or might not be a parish, would be a useful broad, localist and permissive power. I would not favour writing it into the Bill in this way but it may be one of the instruments and measures that a local authority ought to be allowed to choose other than a ward.
Lord Taylor of Goss Moor: My Lords, I have a particular interest in this amendment because parishes in many rural communities are far more relevant than local authority or council boundaries. They are not only historic but often relate to particular communities in a way that local authority wards do not, certainly in my part of the country. That is because wards are driven by numbers, not by community. This seems a good and proper issue to raise. There is of course already the power for parishes to call their own
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However, the legislation here is making reference to particular issues relating to local authorities. Frankly, I therefore see more relevance to allowing a power in relation to a parish as a community than to having specific reference to the electoral division for the primary local authority. I would hope that the Minister can respond positively to the principle here, whatever the means might be to achieve it.
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, I think that I can respond positively. I say to my noble friend and namesake that I do not know how big Goss Moor is, but Holbeach has a population of some 8,500 people in one parish. Some parishes are remarkably large and other parishes are remarkably small, so it is very difficult. One size, or system, fitting all is very difficult. There are provisions, of course, for a local referendum, or parish poll, under the provisions of the Local Government Act 1972, to which the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Goss Moor, has referred.
The amendment would include parishes in the definition of a "relevant area" as that applies to a principal local authority. We do not think that this is appropriate, particularly because we are looking at how we might look at referendums at parish level in legislation within the Bill and as a result of a consultative process, as I said before. Indeed, I mentioned to the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, that I foresaw his organisation being very much involved in this consultative process.
Our approach to local referendums is to enable referendums on local matters at the relevant council area, but for the issue at hand. If it is a district council matter, or a matter over which the district council has influence, the referendum can be held at the district council level, whether it be across one or more wards of the district, or the entire area of the district council, but it is the district council that is the triggering authority for this poll, other than having a parish poll. If it is a parish matter, we believe that a parish poll is the most appropriate method. We will discuss our intended approach to parish council referendums later, and I can assure noble Lords that the parish sector will be fully catered for. We want to see a modernised and proportionate local referendums regime for parishes, on which we will fully consult. I hope, therefore, that with these assurances my noble friend will withdraw his amendment.
Lord Greaves: My difficulty is that I do not know what that regime might be, or even what the Government are talking about. Whether the Minister will give a little more information when we touch briefly on Clause 56 later, I do not know, but I will not talk about that now.
Let me just give one example. In the parish of Laneshaw Bridge, which is in Pendle in the ward of Boulsworth, a huge issue that has split the village is the question of whether the village school should be very considerably expanded to take in a much larger area than the village. The village was split. Nobody knows what the majority opinion in the village is; what we know is that there were campaigning groups on
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Lord Taylor of Goss Moor: I strongly support my noble friend on this. The issue is not whether the matter is one which lies with the local authority or with the parish-that is readily understood and, if it lies with the parish, the parish poll would suffice-but it may well be a matter which lies for decision with the local authority but only affects a small community. It is the nature of rural local authority wards that they often cover a number of communities, many of which would not be affected by the issue at hand, even though it is the local authority that is the decision taker. That is the issue that was not really responded to earlier.
Lord Greaves: I am grateful to my noble friend for making the point more strongly and better than I did. There is clearly an issue here and it is clearly one that will continue to be discussed. We look forward with interest to seeing the Government's proposals for parishes, but the continuation of the point made by my noble friend Lord Taylor is: who pays for the referendum? If it is a district, county or unitary issue, surely that authority should pay for the referendum and the cost of it should not fall upon the parish council, which may well have a view on the matter and be involved in the discussions, but is not responsible in any way for the issue before the referendum. That is a very important matter.
The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, made the point that there is possible provision in the Bill for local authorities to define appropriate local areas which are not co-incident with ward boundaries. It seems to me that a provision that they should be one polling district or a collection of polling districts is one that ought to be looked at by the Government, because polling districts, by their very nature, already have the machinery in place for elections, yet polling districts in most wards are smaller than the wards of which they form part. I put that suggestion to the Government and, on that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
(a) to any person to carry out the collection of signatures on a petition under this section, or
(b) to any person to organise any other persons to carry out the collection of signatures on a petition under this section.
Lord Rennard: My Lords, this amendment addresses another issue of serious concern regarding the potential for abuse in this system. My noble friend Lord Greaves will deal with other aspects of abuse in other amendments in this group, but Amendment 124E deals with the ban that I believe is required on paying people to collect petition signatures to try to trigger these referendums. I am concerned about this potential for abuse because big money interests may be able to use and abuse the petition and referendum systems in order to gain undue influence in an unfair way and subvert other democratic safeguards.
I have seen the way in which this happens from time to time in the United States, where what they call "initiatives" are rather more common than perhaps they are in this country where we would call them referendums. I have seen examples, which I have been given by lobbying organisations, where a big company has decided that it wants to build something and make a lot of money from doing so, but it understands that the relevant local authority might consider, even if there is a desirable benefit to the community, that it is not a priority for that community to build such a project. Rather than try to persuade the local authority that that is what it should do, the company hires people to go around canvassing door to door and in shopping centres and persuading them to sign petitions.
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When the initiative then has to be agreed to because there is seen to be public demand for it, and not to agree to that public demand would be seen to be a problem for the local authority, then the moneyed interests hire the lobbying company to run direct mail campaigns and adverts in the local paper, persuading people that this is what should be voted for. When the initiative is successful, those interests benefit significantly in a commercial sense from something that has not really been proven in a democratic way to be the desire of local people, but where money has paid for the collection of petition signatures and has been very decisive in determining the outcome of the ballot. That is not at all the intention of the Government with this sort of process, but it could open up the democratic system to that sort of abuse. For those reasons, I beg to move.
Lord Greaves: I will speak to Amendments 129B and 129C, which are in this group. They refer to Clause 54, which refers to regulations about voting in, and the conduct of, referendums. Clause 54(6) states clearly:
"Regulations under this section may not include provision ... about the limitation of expenditure in connection with a referendum ... for the questioning of the result of a referendum by a court or tribunal",
The question here is: does that mean that established and understood election law, in these areas and in others, will not apply in the case of a local referendum? Will normal election law not apply? What redress does anyone have if it is believed that someone is rigging the referendum if there is a considerable degree of personation taking place-despite the complacency that there still is in many quarters, quite a bit of old-fashioned personation goes on at polling stations in some parts of the country-or the rigging of postal votes, which takes place on a frequent basis in some parts of the country and in any case is perfectly easy to do? If the system is that there is no criminal or other redress against this happening, the odds are that where some people think that the question behind the referendum is very important that this sort of thing will continue.
If there are freestanding referendums, that may simply be a matter for the referendum. However, it is quite clear that, for reasons of cost, where referendums are taking place councils will do their best to make sure that they do so at the same time as elections-probably on the first Thursday in May, whenever the local elections are taking place or European elections in June and so on. Under those circumstances, if I read the provisions of Clause 54 correctly, rules will apply to the election campaigns but some of them will not apply to the referendum campaigns taking place alongside them. Given what we all believe will happen-
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If I were campaigning in a local election and there was a referendum going on at the same time, I might well include reference to the referendum and what I thought people should do-both for and against it-in my election literature. Indeed, this happened on a large scale among all the parties during the AV campaign, but less so with the Labour Party because it could not make up its mind whether it was in favour or against. It happened on a large scale with the Conservative Party and to some extent among the Liberal Democrats. Leaflets were put out saying, "Vote for Joe Bloggs and, by the way, vote"-yes or no-"in the referendum campaign". Or it was the other way around: leaflets went out which were 90 per cent "vote no" in the referendum campaign, and also "Vote for your local Conservative candidate". I compliment their skill in doing that; it won them a lot of seats.
It is going to happen, certainly at local level. So what about rules like election law, such as the need for imprints on leaflets? Will that apply to referendum material? What about the rules about payment of canvassers? My noble friend Lord Rennard referred to the possible payment of canvassers for collecting petition signatures, but what about paying canvassers to go around and persuade people to vote one way or the other in a referendum, which is illegal in elections? What about offences relating to what you can and cannot do at the counting of the votes? What about offences relating to intimidation of voters? Particularly where there are joint elections, common sense suggests that there should be common rules. The provision in Clause 54 suggests that there should not. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain what it means and whether it needs some amendment before the Bill completes its passage through this House.
Lord Collins of Highbury: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, made a point in moving the amendment about the payment to individuals collecting signatures. I would be slightly concerned that he, as an able organiser in the Liberal Democrats, may fall foul of such an amendment if he was paying employees of the party to undertake political activity that may include support for a referendum. I would hate to think that he may end up in jail as a consequence, so perhaps he could clarify the position.
Lord Rennard: Briefly, no problem seems to occur in elections. The paid staff of parties, as the noble Lord will well know, take part in elections, but it has never been considered an activity of paid canvassing. The activity of a large organisation like a big business deciding it wants to get something through and employing people specifically to sign the petition would be of a rather different order.
Lord True: My Lords, I fear that I rather agree with the noble Lord opposite. There is always a risk in creating a new criminal offence-or a new offence in any case. I hope that my noble friend will resist the amendment of my noble friends. The example of a local newspaper-"Tear off a strip, sign our petition"-
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There might be a perfectly innocent occasion where somebody says to a child or young person, "Come along and help me collect some signatures, and we'll buy you what you have been wanting for some time". That is a perfectly normal kind of thing that goes on in family life, not just in politics. I understand the concerns of my noble friend Lord Rennard about big business, as he puts it, but we may be creating another regulatory hammer if we went down this road. It would not be helpful and might have unintended consequences.
So far as the other amendments are concerned, my noble friend can obviously answer for the Front Bench. I do not want to go into my views on the Electoral Commission as that would detain us for too long, but at least Clause 54(7) states:
Lord Beecham: My Lords, as a preliminary point I refer again to the issue raised this morning with regard to the Delegated Powers Committee, because Clause 54 gives the Secretary of State the right to make regulations. Given what he indicated this morning, I assume that the Minister is inclined to adopt the position of the Delegated Powers Committee; namely, that these regulations should be subject to affirmative resolution. I certainly hope that that would be the case. He nods assent, for which I am grateful.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, touched on an interesting issue when he talked about paying people to requisition a referendum. I do not know of a precise precedent but certainly an analogous situation arose not too long ago in Greater Manchester, where a large commercial concern, Peel Holdings, was, among others, very hostile to the notion of a congestion charging scheme for Greater Manchester. It launched a campaign in the metropolitan borough of Bury to call for a mayoral referendum in the hope and assumption that an anti-congestion charge mayor of whatever political affiliation would be elected, and because in the great scheme of things a single authority in Greater Manchester-only one authority-could veto the whole scheme, that would be sufficient to jettison this scheme, which the company felt was against its interests.
I understand that the company invested a considerable amount of time, energy and cash in securing the signatures to enable a referendum to be held. It was held and there was a low turnout-I recall that something like 11 per cent or so of people voted in the referendum for the holding of a mayoral election, which then took place. Happily, from my perspective, an equally small proportion of the electorate turned out to vote against having a mayor. That is an indication of the dangers that might arise if there was no restriction on what
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I have an amendment in this group, the number of which escapes me, which relates to Clause 54(7) about the making of regulations, and would require the Secretary of State to consult not only the Electoral Commission but the Local Government Association as well. I hope that the Minister will accede to that. It seems sensible to me to involve the LGA in matters of this kind. However, I do not understand some of the provisions that Clause 54 makes for regulations to be made by the Secretary of State. This goes back to some of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, yesterday. Clause 54(4) states:
A simple assimilation of electoral law, in so far as that prescribes these matters, would surely be sufficient. The notion that detail of that kind needs to be made the subject of a Secretary of State's regulation strikes me as absurd. On the other hand, if there are to be regulations, I do not quite follow the position of the noble Lords, Lord Rennard and Lord Greaves, and, for all I know, his colleagues on the Lib Dem part of the government Benches, who wish to take out of subsection (6) regulations,
Lord Beecham: I beg the noble Lord's pardon: that is right. I withdraw my last remarks and accept the noble Lord's amendments to my comments. However, whatever we have in the regulatory framework, the key thing is that the minimum should be prescribed and that whatever is prescribed should be done in conjunction with the Local Government Association and subject to affirmative resolution.
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, perhaps I may start by saying that the Government are inclined, as I indicated, to accept the concept of affirmative resolution for the regulations. I can also say that the inclination of the Government is for a light touch in this area. We have already seen that there are tensions between a
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Amendment 129E creates a criminal offence, and Amendment 129C broadens the Secretary of State's regulating powers to allow the regulations to provide for referendum results to be questioned in court. The creation of criminal offences is simply unnecessary for a regime that is, effectively, non-binding.
One problem that the coalition is trying to deal with is the profusion of unnecessary criminal offences on the statute book. I suggest that the incurring of expenditure to pay someone to campaign to collect signatures falls well below the hurdle that needs to be cleared before persons should be at risk of receiving a criminal record.
I have not examined the situation fully, but my first impression was that the noble Lord, Lord Collins, might well be right, because the reason why it is possible to pay people to work in elections is that their fees are part of the election expenses. It could create problems if they were also involved in a referendum.
Amendment 129B expands the scope of the Secretary of State's power to make regulations on the conduct of referendums to include regulations about the limitation of expenditure in connection with a referendum. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is right about what the Bill states on that. We will be discussing the wider issues about publicity arrangements for referendums in a later group.
Clause 46(6)(b) distinguishes between the procedural regulations that may be made in respect of local referendums which are not binding and those which may be made in respect of binding referendums, such as whether to have an elected mayor. We intend that local referendums should be more light touch, given their non-binding nature. The intention behind the amendments may be to limit restrictions on authorities in connection with the question. In fact, the equivalent provision in regulations for binding referendums is used to impose spending limits on petition organisers and those opposing petitions, and they are invariably accompanied by criminal offences for breaching spending limits. We are not convinced that such requirements are necessary for this scheme of non-binding referendums.
We will discuss publication arrangements in a later group and our intentions on that issue. In the mean time, Amendment 129E, which, in hindsight may have been better grouped with Amendment 129D, seems to have little practical effect. It would remove the words "of the referendum" from Clause 55(8). These words may be considered unnecessary but they do not cause
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The amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, would insert a statutory requirement to consult the Local Government Association in making regulations about voting in, and the conduct of, local referendums. The Electoral Commission is expressly included in the Bill as it is standard practice in all such electoral matters. I neglected to say in reply to the previous debate that we are consulting the Electoral Commission. However, I can assure noble Lords that we intend to consult widely before making regulations, which will include local government associations. I hope that noble Lords will see these non-binding referenda becoming a very different category from ordinary electoral law and I hope that with these assurances, my noble friend will withdraw the amendment.
Lord Greaves: Before my noble friend decides whether or not to divide the House, I should say that these are extremely important matters and we do not believe that the Government have given them the importance that they merit. Whether we like it or not they are all about the possibility for graft and corruption-perhaps not at the same level as for an election itself, but nevertheless graft and corruption over an important matter. If they are not important matters, why are we spending all this money having these referendums?
I just want to make two very brief points. First, within electoral law for elections there is a clear and well understood distinction between paying canvassers and paying people for doing other things, such as delivering leaflets, manning committee rooms, or whatever. You can pay helpers in elections but you are not allowed to pay canvassers. There is a growing area between the two but the distinction is well understood and by and large adhered to.
My second point, which is more fundamental, is the point I made about joint campaigns. It is inconceivable that there will not be joint campaigns of trying to get someone to vote for or against a referendum and an election campaign at the same time, with joint literature, posters and other things that money is spent on. Unless the regulations referring to the referendum are similar to those referring to the election, it will drive a coach and horses through the limits on election expenditure. There must be the same rules for the same two things if people are campaigning for the two things together in the same place at the same time. That is common sense otherwise it is a recipe for a huge amount of misunderstanding and chaos, and as I said, driving a coach and horses through some of the local election rules, not least on the limits on expenditure. That question needs a bit more thought by the Government.
Lord Newton of Braintree: Before anybody says anything else, may I pick up on something which my noble friend Lord Greaves said? I understand that it has not been raised, even though I admit that I have not been here throughout the debate. My question has been illustrated in what my noble friend was saying: what is the position of the party agent in all this? That
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Lord Taylor of Holbeach: I think the agent would be in danger of falling foul of this amendment, not this clause. That is an important distinction. The noble Lords, Lord True and Lord Collins of Highbury, join my noble friend Lord Newton of Braintree in pointing out the difficulties of the heavy hand of regulation.
Lord Rennard: My Lords, perhaps there is not an easy answer to the question just posed by the noble Lord, Lord Newton, but the point is well made that there are grey areas and some difficulties. When we are looking at this petition process and these referendum issues, we have to look rather more carefully than we have done up to now at how we avoid abuse within the system. From my noble friend Lord Greaves and the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, we have heard some genuine concerns about how the system could be open to abuse. We have also heard from the noble Lords, Lord True and Lord Collins, that there is no appetite for what might be considered to be further regulation or offences.
The position from these Benches, and why we are testing out these issues, is not that we want more regulation and more offences, but rather that we want some of the safeguards which properly apply in elections, to avoid abuse of the electoral system and, perhaps, situations in which people could say that pound notes can buy more influence than people's votes. That is a fundamental principle of democracy. We try to have fair rules in elections; they are not perfect and are often grey. Many of us are trying to work to improve them, but we try to have some rules to make sure there is a balance in funding and safeguards to avoid people cheating. Some of those rules and regulations are important in elections and they should also be considered as relevant and necessary in the petition process and for these referendums.
I do not think we have necessarily got quite right the model of what we should do, on which basis I am happy to withdraw the amendment. However, all of us who are concerned must look further at this issue and consult further, as suggested in the amendment by the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, on advice that may come to us from the Electoral Commission and the Local Government Association.
(a) any person who is named in the petition or request,
(b) any person who is the owner or occupier of any land to which the petition or request relates, and
(c) any other person whom the authority considers to have an interest which is likely to be affected by any steps that the authority may take to give effect to the result of the referendum."
Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, I am happy we should also discuss my Amendments 128EA and 129CA. So far in this discussion of referendums we have tended to see it almost in a bilateral way between the public, who might petition and support a referendum, and the local authority, which might be disposed to agree to hold a referendum and have to deal with the results. These amendments are concerned with the third party: a person or company whose activities may have been the cause of suggesting that there should be a referendum. Putting it briefly, they should be involved in some way in the process, being consulted at the different stages and having the opportunity to have their say. This is what these three amendments are about.
When we come to it later, the Bill is perfectly clear on how and why a referendum might be held. It is also clear that it would not be binding on the local authority, but the processes are not as clear as they should be. I will take the example of an airport. I have had the advantage of consulting the company that runs Gatwick Airport, but the issue could apply to similar projects and institutions around the country. Of course, if the proposal is of the major kind that comes within the purview of the Infrastructure Planning Commission, or the MIPU that will take its place under the Bill, there is a separate procedure: I will not touch on that.
In the case of airports, the level for application of the processes of the IPC is if a development would involve more than 10 million passengers a year. That is a pretty big hurdle. A great deal of what goes on-this may apply to power stations or even reservoirs, but will certainly encompass airports-including a great deal of the ongoing development that falls below that limit, will therefore have to be considered by the local authority.
I am not referring now to the question of planning, which we will deal with later when we debate the next clause. The question is whether a project may be put forward that has aroused opposition and may therefore provoke a referendum. Gatwick Airport is a good example because it exemplifies exactly what might be expected. Gatwick is the UK's second largest airport. As I have learnt in the course of my discussions, it has the busiest single runway in the world. That is an astonishing fact, but it is what I am told. The airport
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The airport does not operate in a vacuum. It is surrounded by local communities and is close to a number of towns. The owners are very conscious of the need to be responsible developers and to take account of local opinion. They have always done that and I suspect that the new management are doing it rather better than their predecessors. Therefore, we are talking about how to achieve a balance between the very desirable objective in the Bill of giving local residents a bigger say in what happens in the areas in which they live, and giving investors the confidence that is necessary if they are going to develop their business. That is the issue. Hitherto we have been talking about the first aspect: the question of how local communities can have a say. The second, of course, is what these amendments are intended to address.
One should remember that a commercial institution like Gatwick Airport often has to work to extremely tight timetables. It has to raise finance and have regard to its regulator. An economically regulated airport such as Gatwick can face severe financial penalties if the targets set by the regulator are not met. Investors need the certainty that there will be no potential obstacles to meeting those timetables so they can be reasonably sure of avoiding the penalties.
How is this new system going to be applied to them? How are you going to deal with this? The purpose of my amendments, as I said at the beginning, is to provide the clarity which the Bill does not have at the moment. They would provide for a transparent consultation between a local authority and an affected third party-in this case the company running the airport-which might be named in a local referendum as to whether it is appropriate that a referendum should be held at all. Further, if a referendum is to be called that relates to it, it should be notified.
Finally, Amendment 129CA would ensure that a named third party-in this case the manager of the airport or it might be any of the other investors with ongoing development requirements-should be consulted before the local authority chooses whether to give effect to the result at all. We have already discussed that the referendum is not binding: it is a decision the local authority would have to take. All the clause asks is that the affected third party should have an opportunity to have a say and that the local authority should have regard to any representations.
It might be said that these things are so automatic they ought to happen already. I am sure that is not always the case. People can sometimes plough ahead. It may be an unpopular development. I have not been told, but I suspect that around major airports there are communities deeply hostile to what goes on there; it would not surprise me in the least. I used to live near Stansted Airport and, as we have all seen, the opposition to the expansion has been immense. There has been
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That is what these three amendments do. They provide a level of safeguard against what one might call the unintended consequences of what is otherwise a desirable development. It is people having more of a say about what happens in their own areas. When I questioned the people from the airport they told me firmly, "We agree it is right and proper that local people should be able to express their views on issues specific to their area". I come back to the point that it is a question of holding the balance. My amendments simply intend to provide reasonable procedures which would enable a better chance with the local authority holding the balance as it should. I beg to move.
Lord Beecham: My Lords, with respect to the noble Lord, the first amendment is an unnecessary addition to the responsibilities of local authorities. On the kind of issue the noble Lord has addressed, such as a very controversial issue like an airport or major development, it is inconceivable that a prospective developer would be unaware of a petition doing the rounds. On the other hand paragraph (b) of Amendment 126ZA says,
I can think immediately of situations in my own ward where we have empty properties about which there is considerable concern. There might well be petitions coming to the local authority to do something about them but very often it is impossible to know who the owner of the property is or how to contact the owner. Again, that would create a significant burden and, with the best possible motive, it is overegging the responsibilities of the authority.
I have a little more sympathy with the after-the-event process that the noble Lord refers to in Amendment 129CA because it requires the authority to consult. There will potentially be the same issue on paragraph (b) but, in general, it is not unreasonable to require the authority to consult in a referendum those affected although, bearing in mind again that we are talking about non-binding referendums, this is a less significant issue than it would otherwise be. Nevertheless, it is good practice for an authority to consult if it is going to do that, and I see no harm in that provision. However, if the Government are minded to accept it, I urge that there be some qualification to paragraph (b) about the ownership or occupation of land, which may be very difficult to identify. On the other hand, paragraph (c),
is so wide that I think it is a bit much. If the Government are at all minded to respond sympathetically to the noble Lord, and I hope they are in respect of the second point, it should really be combined to paragraph (a) and a modified paragraph (b). That would be my respectful suggestion.
I support these amendments as I consider them to be in the spirit of the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, gives a useful example in Gatwick Airport, but there is a wide range of third parties that may be affected by any referendum. When decisions are being taken, those impacted by them should be notified and consulted openly. It is right that local authorities consult those potentially affected about whether it is appropriate to hold a referendum at all, as well notifying them if it were to happen and consulting on what steps are taken afterwards. Referenda should be a positive tool and, to that end, they should be well considered and thoughtfully implemented if they are to have the best possible impact on communities. I hope the Minister agrees.
The Earl of Lytton: My Lords, I had not expected to speak on this amendment, but I think the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, raises a very valid point. I live within what is known as the Gatwick Diamond economic area, so I know very well what he is referring to. I know of situations where, for instance, residential development takes place near to industrial premises through normal course of development and re-use. Gatwick Diamond, along with many other areas, is now a 24/7 operation. It is near enough to coastal ports for large lorries to be coming along and near enough to all sorts of aviation-related and other downstream industries.
Local residents may not much like 44-tonne lorries coming along in the wee small hours of the morning. I can quite see that, but it is not fanciful at all to suppose that they might not wish to procure a cessation via triggering a referendum with a view to protecting what they see as their interests. Nor is it a planning-only issue because it may relate to a whole raft of regulatory functions for which local authorities and other bodies have responsibility. While I cannot vouch that the wording that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, uses is cohesive, I think there needs to be some regard for the economic consequences of what is being sought by a referendum. It seems that a referendum can be formulated on quite a narrow premise. If that is the case, it is quite possible for it to concern things of a much broader spectrum. It is worthy of consideration by the Minister.
Lord Beecham: Does the noble Lord not agree that in matters of the significance and complexity to which he and the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, have referred, a referendum is probably the least effective way, in terms of time, of drawing the matter to the attention of the local authority? There are ways of doing that through petitions or by addressing local councillors through the local media that would be much quicker and more likely to have an effect than the necessarily rather cumbersome processes that would be involved in a referendum. In those circumstances, therefore, is there perhaps less urgency and potency in the noble Lord's amendment than might otherwise have been the case?
The Earl of Lytton: In response to the very wise comments of the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, it may well be a cumbersome way of doing it but the point is
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Lord McKenzie of Luton: I am going to speak in support of what my noble friend Lord Beecham said. It is the mention of airports that I cannot resist, of course, because we have one in Luton. I know how important it is to the local community and what a generator of jobs it is. In many ways, airports are the organisations least likely to need the measure that the noble Lord proposes because they have consultative committees anyway so there is automatically a wide engagement with the community. The principle of somebody who is potentially on the receiving end of a referendum or a petition knowing about that and the local authority having to make a decision to engage with them seems to be entirely reasonable. What we are balking at is that the specific amendment is a little too prescriptive and takes us too far down an unfortunate path. However, we are all well aware of the challenges that airports in particular face.
Lord Newton of Braintree: My Lords, I apologise to my noble friend but tempted again I have been-on this occasion just to show how even-handed I am-to join in a little bit with the noble Lords, Lord Beecham and Lord McKenzie, with due apologies to my noble friend Lord Jenkin. It is the third arm of this that worries me most. It says,
It is not just airports. Major commercial developments, for example, have effects over a wide area. Leaving aside Stansted, about which I know a good deal, and which would certainly be said to have effects over 30, 40, 50 or 100 or more miles, Lakeside at Thurrock has had effects on shopping centres all over Essex. It is unimaginable that the local authority would really have to consult the people of Thurrock, Chelmsford, Colchester, Braintree and Brentwood-to name the Secretary of State's constituency and indeed that of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. We need some caution before going down the path scripted in this amendment. That is all I would say. There may be merit in the purpose but the wording needs very careful consideration.
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: I have been rather eager to stand because I feel that this gets to the nub of the issue. I am not entirely sure whether my noble friend Lord Jenkin, who has presented these amendments, is the same noble Lord who just the other day was urging me to trust local people to run these affairs. Localism is the name of the Bill; localism is what it is about. I urge him to read his own speech in Hansard to realise why it is that the Government do not want to bind this policy up. If any organisation of significance feels that it is vulnerable to popular opinion and is so
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I do not think that the noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, was in the Chamber when I introduced government amendments earlier today which excluded planning applications from the referendum process. That is very important to understand in this context.
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: I am most grateful. I take on board what the noble Baroness said but noble Lords opposite and my noble friend Lord Newton have made it clear that this process should not be so burdensome that it kills off the very expression of local opinion that we want to generate.
As regards the amendments tabled by my noble friend, I share his concerns that no person should find himself featuring in a referendum without an opportunity to make representations on the matter. But that I am sure is in the nature of these things and the dialogue within local communities. I understand that my noble friend is using the word "person" in the strictly legal sense of meaning company and corporate activity. In my estimation, it would be a rare case, as I have said, that a referendum will in practice concern a situation where people are totally unaware of the issues that are subject to a referendum.
Similarly, in deciding whether to give effect to a referendum result, the local authority will have regard to the need to balance the views of all interested groups. It will have regard to the economic interests of the area as perceived by it as a local authority and as elected representatives. To take such decisions is what local government has to do all the time. If there was any doubt that it would be appropriate for authorities to consult people directly affected by referendums, I hope that what I have said will dispel that. We believe that the amendments are unnecessary burdens on authorities and I hope that my noble friend will not press them.
Lord Jenkin of Roding: I am grateful to all those who have expressed their views so frankly on this group of amendments. Of course, this is intended primarily to raise the issue and there have been a number of quite forceful responses. I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, and the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, for their support. Nevertheless, in response to my noble friend on the Front Bench, I feel myself in a sense wanting to say touché. Of course, I am not seeking to impose centrally or to tell local authorities the details of how they should do this. But it is part of the function of central government to protect local communities and ratepayers against possible abuse of processes by local government. One would always say that. But it does not need the great mass of legislation in this Bill.
Having said that, I am sure that those who have advised me on this will study the issue carefully and will decide whether it will be necessary to come back to this on Report. We will have quite a lot and it may be that this will not achieve enough support at that stage but we will look at it. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, I have been listening to the wonderful words of the Minister about how important it is that local government should not be encumbered by lots of detailed rules and regulations and thinking that at least we are on the same wavelength. Tongue in cheek, I wonder if he will take a pristine copy of the Bill home with him this weekend, and a nice big red pen, and annotate the Bill in appropriate ways to strike out a large number of the detailed regulations and the 140-odd provisions for yet more detailed regulations for local authorities, and hand it to a civil servant next week and say, "This is your job for a week; get rid of it". I live in hope.
I move Amendment 126A and the seven amendments in my name and that of my noble friend that are set out in this group together with Amendment 128A, as I announced earlier. There is a useful Labour amendment in the group but I will let the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, speak to it.
Clause 47 is an important clause because it sets out the grounds on which the council should make its decision when it receives a petition or indeed a request from a member about whether a referendum takes place or not. This is not a trivial decision. We have heard that referendums across London might cost many millions of pounds; but for any big councils in big cities, we are talking about millions of pounds. Even for smaller councils, it can be an important item in their budget, or one that is not in their budget, which nevertheless they have to find a way of covering. In the present financial circumstances this might well mean cutting other useful services.
This is a list. Whenever we put forward lists, we are always told by the Government to be very careful because, if we put things in the list, they are in, and if we do not put them in the list, people might think they are not in. In this case, we know that they are not in because Clause 47(1) says:
The list in Clause 47 is extremely important because it ties the hands of the local authority. It does not say to it, as the Minister has pointed out, that if it is in the
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refers to something happening during the referendum campaign. It is not about the question itself-what the effect would be of carrying out what the referendum wants brought about; it is about action taken during the campaign which,
I can only think that this refers to the possibility of public disorder of some sort. Will the Minister say what the Government think it refers to? It is very difficult to see how this could be made to stick if it was challenged, because how would you know that the referendum question would be likely to lead to an unruly campaign? Alternatively, what else does it refer to? If it refers to a referendum question that is, for example, overtly racist, it would be easy to reject it, but the chance of getting such a referendum question is very small indeed. Racists who want to use a referendum to promote their cause are going to be more careful about how they word the question. So this is a probing amendment to find out what it means.
Amendments 126B and 126C challenge the word "influence", and again are probing amendments. We suggest that this should be brought in more tightly to a council's powers; that is, the things it can do. Even the general power of competence might be very wide. It is difficult to think of things that people might want to hold a referendum on but over which the council does not have some sort of influence. I suppose that a referendum about the melting of the Arctic ice cap might be thought out of order, but even then it might be tied to the council's climate change policies, so it is difficult to think of areas where the council has absolutely no influence. Some clarification of what the influence of a council is, in this sense, would be helpful.
"The third ground is that the action requested by the question is unlawful or discriminatory, or would contravene the authority's codes relating to equality of treatment or its financial regulations".
Other noble Lords may think of other things that should be included, but this is clear. Surely it should be laid down that if the action requested by the
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I turn to Amendment 126F. However, as the Minister has already moved an amendment today, this amendment is not needed, and we are grateful for that. Amendment 126H refers to the grounds set out in the Bill. At the moment they do not seem to be sufficiently wide. A council ought to be able to refuse a referendum if it judges that it concerns a trivial matter and spending money on it would simply not be worth the candle. Similarly, if the council or someone else is doing something anyway, the referendum would be a waste of time because the decision has been made. The Government have already moved an amendment to deal with repetition which provides that another referendum on the same subject cannot take place for four years. That, too, is extremely welcome. Our definition of "disproportionate" is that the cost of holding a referendum is excessive when bearing in mind the cost of carrying out the proposal in question. If a council is being asked to spend £80,000 to hold a referendum when to do what the referendum is asking for would cost only £15,000, it is a pointless waste, whether or not the council wishes to do it.
Finally, we suggest that the fifth ground for the decision is that it is not appropriate because what is being asked for is the allocation of a disproportionate level of resource in one area when it is absolutely clear to the council that it is either not practical due to financial constraints or it would be unfair; that is, it would be possible but it would mean taking resources from existing schemes and services to put into a particular scheme or service that was being requested by an area in a way that would not be equitable across the authority. Knowing that before the referendum takes place, the authority can show that it is not financially viable and that holding a referendum would be a waste of everybody's time and money.
These amendments may not be perfect but the criteria that the Government are putting forward at the moment in this clause are not sufficient to give a council enough flexibility to carry out the kind of localist decision-making that the Minister talked about not long ago-on a common-sense basis, without holding referendums which will simply waste a lot of time and money and not achieve anything. I beg to move.
Lord Beecham: I will speak to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, but also to my own Amendment 126CA, which would include on page 40, line 18, under grounds for determination in Clause 47, a definition of "local" which means that an issue can be,
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has come forward with a mixed bag of amendments here. First, I will address his last proposition on the cost of the project relative to the cost of a referendum-or, indeed, the question of equity. That is Amendment 128A, to which he referred, on the deployment of extra resources in part of an authority's area. I am not quite with the noble Lord on this. Actually, a petition for a referendum is an opportunity to debate an issue that might be of significance to that part of an authority's area. Incidentally, I am not sure whether the amendment could extend to the whole of an authority's area or just part, and if so how that part is to be defined, except perhaps by the petitioners.
If there is such an issue, it is proper that it should be debated. Initially, no doubt, those promoting the referendum would be invited by the council to explain their position and the council would respond. That is a sensible way of proceeding. If they then wished to proceed to a referendum they should not be prevented from doing so. That is an opportunity, certainly for the residents or petitioners to make their case but also for the authority to exercise some leadership and explain what it is doing and the constraints within which it operates. It can make that clear not only for the purposes of the particular referendum but as a matter of general interest to the area as a whole. We all face these decisions about priorities all the time. They are perhaps insufficiently acknowledged or understood by the electorate. If referendums are a way to bring home some of these truths, particularly as they are non-binding, I would not want to resist them taking place.
The noble Lord's amendments include a reference to the question of influence as opposed to power. He cites the issue of the melting ice cap, implying that that is not a matter of local interest. The noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, is not in his place today, but if he were he might say that the residents of Norfolk have good reason to fear the melting of the ice cap. Saving the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, that issue might not be specifically related to the ice cap, but climate change and its impact on a community might well be a matter over which an authority has some influence and which it is relevant to ask it to look at. Influence would surely include a power, whereas the other way round it would not necessarily be the case. I would have thought that influence is actually a better way of looking at that issue.
Again that raises a difficulty, as a matter might be of considerable significance to people but not involve much cost. There might be, let us say, a traffic issue or something of that kind which might be felt to be of great importance in an area. The referendum might be more costly than the exercise of dealing with the issue but I would not like it to be precluded simply on those grounds. Again, I hope that the very process of getting to the point of a referendum might facilitate the resolution of matters. As I indicated in an intervention on the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, there are other methods.
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Lord True: My Lords, I would also like to warn against this. Although I have some sympathy with some of the amendments spoken to by my noble friend, I think that Amendment 128A could cause great difficulties. As is emerging in this Committee, I am rather more enthusiastic about or tolerant of referendums than my noble friend perhaps appears to be. The reality is that when local authorities are being forced to restrain their spending, as they are at the moment-in our case £30 million was taken out of the budget-the last line,
would mean that, at a time of contraction, a local authority would effectively be able to say no to any referendum on the general basis that, "We can't afford what you're asking for". That could be used by some authorities simply to say, "We can't do any of it, so bye-bye".
Equally, it would be quite difficult to resist calls for referendums, per contra-if ever that day comes; I do not expect to see it in the foreseeable future-when there are more resources coming into local authorities. I would be nervous about that and I rather agree with the noble Lord, Lord Beecham. Let us say, for example, that a community wished to see its local school expand but it was not possible at that time. Why would it not be reasonable for them to put their case forward in a referendum and put a marker down for some time in the future? I could not follow my noble friend on that amendment.
is also in this group. I must tell my noble friend that I have some sympathy with this amendment as it emerged in earlier discussions. This is linked to the power that we discussed for individual councillors or pairs of councillors to launch referendums. Unless the local authority is able to determine what is a local matter to that authority, we could perversely be creating a situation where, for example, in its standing orders the local authority forbids discussion of the wars, perils and plagues around the world and yet a member of the council who wishes to have that matter discussed could use the referendum power to say, "Let's have a referendum on this subject". They might get some support and it could be a way of getting round it.
Again in the cause of localism, it should be open to the local authority to determine in every respect the way in which matters to be discussed impact on it, either directly or indirectly through a referendum. It should be left to the local authority at least to be able to have enough influence to align the mechanisms with a simple, coherent definition of what is a local matter. Apart from my liking for localism, the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, may have at least a useful argument there.
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: This has been a useful debate. I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for opening it, but even more grateful to my noble friend Lord True and the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, for their contributions. They recognised that there are difficulties in seeking to restrict the use of referenda too far. For example, Amendments 126A and 126E would replace the generic reference to,
I suspect that my noble friend Lord Greaves is presenting this as a probing amendment to find out what this is about and what sorts of enactments are considered unlawful. Clearly, no local authority could be obliged to consider through a referendum something which is unlawful. I hope that I can reassure my noble friend that the provision as drafted achieves the result that he requires. The Equality Act 2010, for example, is clearly "an enactment". The way in which Clause 47(2) is drafted actually caters for all the sorts of things that we would all want to catch and leaves no space for mischievous attempts to get round the protection, such as by phrasing a question cleverly so that it is not "the action requested" that would be unlawful, but the campaign surrounding the referendum.
The second ground that my noble friend mentioned was that the matter was not a local one over which the local authority has influence. My noble friend wanted to know what influence was and what would be the effect of replacing the word "influence" with the word "power". Amendment 126D removes Clause 47(4)(b), which contains the definition of "influence". We can appreciate the intention behind these amendments; nobody wants councils to be forced to hold irrelevant referendums and we have seen how the unconstrained power for electors to force parish polls has sometimes been misused by particular lobby groups to force polls on matters that are far removed from the remit of parish councils. However, if my noble friend is asking whether "influence" in Clause 47(4)(b) includes the general power of competence, I would say that indeed it does.
I do not believe that the alternative drafting suggested by noble Lords improves on what is in the Bill. When one considers the impact of Clause 1, one needs to be quite cautious about referring to situations where local authorities have "power" in future. I hope that noble Lords will accept my assurance that the formulation in Clause 47 is framed broadly enough to differentiate the circumstances where there is a manifestly inappropriate attempt to abuse the referendum system from one where there is an issue of local importance in which the local authority has a genuine role. My noble friend has acknowledged that his amendment is unnecessary in the light of the government amendment.
Amendments 126H and 128D seek to expand the fourth ground to give local authorities greater scope to reject a petition. We accept that there is a case for giving councils the flexibility to reject repetitive petitions or requests for referendums, and I hope that my noble
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I am not sure that my noble friend is right. The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, grasped the point that cost is not the proper equation to be taken into account in judging whether a council should be able to refuse a referendum. Something may be extremely important to a local community that may involve little expenditure in terms of its implementation but would have a great impact on people's lives, and it is perfectly proper that that should be a subject for a referendum if the local authority feels that that is correct. So long as we get the framework right, and I believe that we have, there will be no point in anyone attempting to abuse the system and so they may not bother.
On Amendment 128A again, I agree with my noble friend Lord True. As he has said, that amendment would enable any referendum to be refused. I cannot see that that is the purpose of the legislation, and I hope that my noble friend Lord Greaves will reflect on that.
Amendment 126CA of the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, seeks to provide that a local matter will be a matter determined to be so by the local authority. We agree that it is for local authorities to determine whether or not it is appropriate to hold a local referendum. Our provisions give local authorities discretion to do that, subject to certain safeguards that we have discussed today. I am therefore not convinced that this amendment either is necessary or would make any practical difference, given the wording of Clause 47(3), which refers to whether the local authority,
Lord Greaves: My Lords, I will think carefully about whether to withdraw it. Clearly I am not going to win on some of the amendments in the group, such as Amendments 128A and 128D, and it may well be that the clear majority view in the Committee is right. However, this has been a useful discussion and I thank noble Lords who have taken part.
The Minister said, and I think I quote him accurately, "So long as we get the framework right, then it'll all be okay". However, we are talking here about some of the framework, and you cannot rely on local authorities to get the framework right unless the legislation is right.
There are two areas that require more thought. The first and by far the most important concerns things that are illegal or contrary to council codes of conduct. The Minister said, rightly, that no council would want to carry out actions as the result of a referendum, or indeed to carry out a referendum, calling for things that were not legal. However, I think that what words say in legislation is important. As I read the proposal, and as I said when I was moving the amendment, the unlawful thing set out there is not the request in the
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Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, I may have misunderstood my noble friend. I have listened to what he is saying, and there is no way that any campaign of any description can be based on illegal acts. I hope that I have not misunderstood my noble friend. If I have, perhaps he might have a word with me and explain where I have gone wrong. Not only is it not possible for a referendum to be put that demands a council to perform illegally, it is clearly wrong for campaigners to offend against the law in the nature of the campaign or statements that they make in seeking to petition for a referendum.
Lord Greaves: The Minister is absolutely right. The law is the law, and if people break the law, they break the law. My point is that, as I read the legislation, the illegality refers to the likelihood of people breaking the law during the election campaign as a ground for refusing to have a referendum. Although I tabled an amendment to remove that, it was a probing amendment and I am not suggesting that it should be removed. I am suggesting that it should be made absolutely clear that the ground for refusing to have a referendum is that what is being asked for as the outcome of the referendum is not legal. I cannot understand why that should not happen. That is different from the conduct of the campaign, but I am happy to discuss this informally with the Minister.
Briefly, the Government should think about the "trivial" point. This clause currently refers to questions which are "vexatious or abusive", wording which comes from the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009 in relation to petitions. That Act is being repealed, and we will probably have the same debate over that.
A council ought to be able to reject a petition for a referendum on the grounds that the issues in it simply are not worth the candle-that they are "trivial", or whatever wording the Government would come up with; that they are de minimis in some way. Perhaps the Government will reflect on that. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Lucas: My Lords, the Minister has got ahead of us on this with Amendment 128E being debated rather earlier today, but I do not see that Amendment 128E covers the cases that interest me. Perhaps, if I am wrong about that, my noble friend can explain. I am principally interested in the way in which allowing planning matters in under a referendum would make a mess of the provisions for neighbourhood planning. We have extensive provision there for referenda and there should not be a cross-cutting system which allows that process, which is difficult and expensive enough to organise anyway, to be upset by people running competing referendums, or in other ways trying to upset the decision once it has been made.
on the part of persons adversely affected. In other words, it is saying that this provision does not apply if there is no third-party right of appeal, which I think there is not in a lot of planning permissions. I view the scope of subsection (4) of Amendment 128E as being very limited compared with the sort of exclusions that I would like to see. As all planning is dealt with very satisfactorily in the neighbourhood planning section, it should not be allowed in the local referendum section in any form. I beg to move.
The Earl of Lytton: My Lords, as I explained to the Minister earlier today, I think that Amendment 128E has largely covered my amendment. However, like all amendments, there was a supplementary purpose lurking behind it, which was to try to probe the wider interaction between the facility of referendums generally, especially in their cumulative effect-the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, who is not in his place at the moment, touched on that a few minutes ago-and the wider family of the statutory functions of local authorities. It is instructive to note Amendment 128C relating to transport.
I have lost count of the number of times that the burdens on local authorities on the one hand and the need to get at the authentic voice of people on the other have been referred to in this part of the Bill. We are considering the effects for a democratically elected representative body whose functions might not work terribly well, or be effectively discharged, if a referendum is imposed. The Bill cannot be all things to all men. We have to have a balance between vox populi on the one hand and the effective administration of local government on the other. That balance needs to be explained.
I hope that the Minister will be able to elaborate on some of these points, but I certainly think that there is an issue here, which was touched on in earlier debates in Committee. We need to be clear to what extent people within a community should engage with the
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Lord Best: My Lords, Amendment 128B is in my name. I do not think that we have given the Government enough credit for the amendment that we heard of earlier today, because that seemed to me to satisfy, if not entirely-I want to dwell on that-a good deal of the misgivings that we have had about referendums applying to the world of planning. We now have an amendment that will mean that planning applications are taken out of the reach of petitions and referendums. That is an enormous difference from where we were yesterday. I want to place on record my appreciation to the Government for taking that forward. It means that another laboriously prepared speech of mine is now redundant, but the amendment is extremely welcome.
Our hesitations about where we have got to are as follows. We understand that discretion is there for local authorities not to go ahead with referendums if there is a statutory process that gives members of the public opportunities to make representations and a statutory right of appeal or of investigation through a review. However, although that clearly applies to individual planning applications-great stuff-does that apply to all of the processes of preparing local development plans? I think that it must cover the preparation of the local development frameworks. If it did not cover the local authority preparing its local development plan, that would be disastrous. Throughout local government, we are already way behind in getting those local development frameworks undertaken. The abolition of regional spatial strategies means that we will be in limbo if local authorities do not have their own local development plans. We must get on with that. It would be incredibly difficult for the Government to pursue their growth agenda and do the good things that they want to do in terms of the development of renewable energy and the development of new homes if the threat of referendums was hanging over the creation of local development plans.
Beyond that, there are supplementary planning documents. They may not have the full panoply of examination in public and independent inspection in all cases. For removal of doubt, it would be better to have an amendment such as that in my name or in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that takes the whole of the planning scene out of the referendum process. If we cannot, can we at least have firm reassurance that the process of producing local development plans, with the supplementary elements that go with them-the whole of that process-will be excluded by this excellent amendment?
Lord True: My Lords, I am sorry to strike a discordant note, but I strongly disagree with aspects of the remarks of my noble friend Lord Lucas and the noble Lord, Lord Best, in relation to parts of the planning system. We discussed this briefly earlier, and I will not reiterate my remarks then.
My noble friend Lord Taylor undertook to write to me about referendums where a London borough, in the case I gave, may have set up an indicative planning
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I certainly could not support an amendment ranging as widely as that of my noble friend Lord Lucas. "Planning matters" is wording far too widely cast. Of course I agree with the point established in Committee; I think that most noble Lords agreed that we do not want to encourage referendums on individual planning applications. I also have very grave doubt about how far we should cast it in relation to local development plans and frameworks.
We have a local development framework at the moment, which it is clear that the public do not find satisfactory. As neighbourhood planning develops, a referendum might well be desired by people or wished for by the council. That is a useful device in an age of localism in involving people in such fundamental issues.
I hope that my noble friend will resist casting that constriction on the right of people to be heard on the neighbourhood and place in which they live. Nothing to my mind is more fundamental in the 21st century to the role of a local authority than the spirit of place. People's opportunity to express their view about the nature of their place in terms of the broad planning framework under which they live in their communities seems to be absolutely vital. It would send a hard and difficult message if the Committee were to constrict that opportunity in the way suggested by the noble Lord.
Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: My Lords, I hope that you will forgive me for intervening as I did not speak on Second Reading. Under this heading, I wonder whether the Minister can clarify whether there is an exemption on petitioning and on moving to have a referendum on car-parking charges. I discovered that my area in London recently increased car-parking fines to £130-a phenomenal increase. I gather that many of these increases are taking place in different locations on similar scales around the country. I wonder whether this will provide the opportunity for the citizen to petition against those, or indeed move for a referendum.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, I shall speak briefly to the amendments, and say that we are with the noble Lords, Lord Best and Lord Lucas, on this. It is an opportunity for the Government to set out quite broadly their view on the exclusion, not only for particular planning applications but for the broader role of planning briefs and everything that goes with the planning process. Like the noble Lord, Lord Best, I think that we should congratulate the Government on their earlier concessions. That has helped our deliberations to move on a lot.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord True, that of course it must be right that people have the opportunity to engage and influence their neighbourhood and place.
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Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, I am grateful for this opportunity as it was a key area and the decision to table the amendments has helped to move the Bill forward. I am, however, in a less than satisfactory situation in the sense that we can see that a number of factors now come into play. The definition of planning appeals, an appeal process, and the rest of it means that it will require some further thought to see what the implications are. It is clear that a referendum on planning applications can be ruled out, but indicative planning and the like with consultative processes are a matter that we need to consider, as well as how exactly they might be brought into this process. My noble friend Lord True carefully articulated the importance of making sure that the public voice in these matters is not stifled. We accept that, but on the other hand we do not want the whole referendum process to be totally absorbed on planning matters.
I promised my noble friend Lord True that I would write to him. Indeed, I will write to all noble Lords and place a copy in the Library of our position on this issue, so that it is quite clear. However, I do not from this Dispatch Box want to give an on-the-hoof answer which may mislead noble Lords in this regard; I do not think that helps to take the debate forward and I apologise.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: We appreciate what the Minister has said because we are likely to get into planning issues next week-maybe on Tuesday at some stage, or maybe not even till Thursday. It would really help our deliberations if by then the Government had been able to focus more specifically on these issues, and perhaps we could have some reassurance on that.
The noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, was worried not so much about his car-parking charges as the fines when he did not pay them, if I heard him correctly. At any rate, perhaps one may lead to the other. Our amendments put in place a framework for councils to decide to refuse a referendum in certain cases. The issues raised by noble Lords clearly illustrate
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Lord True: May I briefly assist the Committee and perhaps my noble friend if I made it clear that Clause 47(6), whether we like the word "vexatious" or not, helps to guard against some of the fears of my noble friend Lord Lucas and the noble Lord, Lord Best? If there were a case where hundreds and thousands of people had been involved in indicative planning and the process of planning, clearly a referendum that then came along from a group would potentially be vexatious. A local authority could resist that. Maybe "vexatious" is not the right word, but what concerns me is the case that I cited of a regional body, London, interfering with a lower body where there has been no effective consultation, it was a choice between two visions of the future and there has not been adequate public involvement. It might in those cases not be vexatious to have a referendum. It might be illuminating and that is the difference. Perhaps in considering this, my noble friend might want to look at the application of Clause 47(6) and how that would bite on these potential powers.
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: Again my noble friend makes a valuable contribution and points out how complex this is going to be in terms of definition. I would like to thank him for his contribution and my noble friend Lord Lucas for tabling the original amendment which has given rise to this debate. I hope I can persuade him to withdraw it, but I think the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, wants to come back.
Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe: I am grateful to the noble Lord for helping me to differentiate between charges and fines. I was indeed referring to fines and, as somebody asked me which was the borough, I say that it was Wandsworth. It has the lowest council tax in the country, but some of the highest fines and charges. Was he saying to me that, in his view, an attempt to have a referendum in that area would probably be ruled out?
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: I can say to the noble Lord that the first indication I had about the correct response had a simple two-letter word: no-that it would not be possible. However, I sought further elaboration and gained a slightly more elaborate response, though the short answer is probably correct-that this would not be a subject on which a local referendum could be held.
Lord Lucas: My Lords, that is a pity. I hope that my noble friend, as he is in letter-writing mood, will let the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, and me know why this could not be the subject of a referendum. It is one of the main ways in which local authorities choose to beat their residents about the head-one of the main reasons why the residents of Richmond are now happy to have my noble friend Lord True there rather than the previous incumbent. It seems to be very much the sort of thing that local referendums should be
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As to what we were supposed to be talking about, I am very grateful to my noble friend for offering to write. It is a very complicated area and not one where I profess any expertise: I was mainly concerned that we were producing something that would cut across the bit of the Bill which really interests me, namely neighbourhood planning and how it works. My noble friend and other noble Lords-including my noble friend Lord True-have raised many subjects to which I will be very interested to read the answers. My particular worry is that proposed new subsection (4)(b)(i) in Amendment 128E seems to suggest that this is a matter in which injured and adversely affected persons have a right of appeal. In the case of most planning applications, one can consider oneself adversely affected if one has to look at an ugly monstrosity across the street, yet one does not have the right to appeal because there is no third-party right of appeal. I am concerned that the wording of the amendment does not exempt most planning applications, but I am sure that the Minister will cover that in his reply.
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, U-turns are allowed nowadays in politics, are they not? I will correct an answer that I gave. I misread the answer that I was given to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, about a referendum. Councils could not refuse to hold a referendum on car-parking charges: the referendum would need to be held.
(1) Where a principal local authority has under section 46 made a determination that it is appropriate to hold a local referendum in response to a petition, the authority (if it has not already done so) must cause the petition to be-
(a) considered for the purposes of subsection (2) by its chief finance officer, and
(b) considered for the purposes of subsections (3) and (4) by the proper officer.
(2) The petition is a special-case petition if the authority's chief finance officer estimates that the cost of holding a local referendum in response to the petition would be more than 5% of the amount last calculated by the authority before it received the petition as its council tax requirement for the financial year in which the petition was received by it.
(3) The petition is a special-case petition if the proper officer of the authority is of the opinion that the matter to which the referendum question relates has been, or has substantially been, the subject of at least one local or other referendum held-
(a) in the four years ending with the date on which the petition was received by the authority, and
(b) in the area to which the petition relates (whether or not in that area alone).
(a) there is a statutory process and it is the case, or is substantially the case, that the process involves giving-
(i) members of the public, or
(ii) members of a section of the public,
an opportunity to make representations in relation to the matter, and
(b) it is the case, or is substantially the case, that persons adversely affected by the matter or a decision made in relation to it have-
(i) a statutory right of appeal in respect of the substance of the matter or decision, or
(ii) a statutory right to instigate a review of the substance of the matter or decision.
(a) make an application for judicial review,
(b) make a complaint under Part 3 of the Local Government Act 1974 to a Local Commissioner, or
(c) make a complaint to a housing ombudsman under a scheme approved for the purposes of Schedule 2 to the Housing Act 1996.
(a) the component council tax requirement for the year for the London Assembly, and
(b) the component council tax requirement for the year for the Mayor of London;
(a) section 151 of the Local Government Act 1972,
(b) section 6 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989, or
(c) section 127(2) of the Greater London Authority Act 1999,
(b) the petition is not a special-case petition,"
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