Draft Local Authorities (Conduct of Referendums) (England) Order 2001

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Mr. Don Foster: It is.

Mr. Waterson: That sedentary confirmation will appear on the record, and thus obviates the need for the hon. Gentleman to speak in the debate. We have it from the junior partners in the pact that it is a wholly arbitrary figure.

It is interesting that the regulations open up the possibility of quite large authorities operating the same alternative arrangements. They could do that by the back door. I see that I have the rapt and undivided attention of the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). The larger authorities, which would—at least prima facie—tend to have an interest in having a directly elected mayor could end up having these arrangements because of a negative vote. They could hold a referendum and find that the public did not want it. They would then be in a fallback position and, magically, could be on the same level, in terms of the measures, as a shire district with fewer than 85,000 people.

That is utterly amazing. What if the news got out? The best way to ensure wide coverage of anything is, of course, to mention it in a statutory instrument Committee. If this gets out, many councils that previously had no interest in a directly elected mayor might stage a referendum on the basis that, if it fails, they will end up with the fourth option. It reminds me of the film, ``The Producers'', in which people set out to produce a flop on Broadway, thereby making a great deal of money.

The next Conservative Government will make it clear that every local authority could, if it wanted to, choose option four, irrespective of whether it has conducted a mayoral referendum. Every council will be able to change back to a version of the committee system if it so wishes. That sets out neatly the difference between the Conservatives and the centralising, nannying, bossing Labour Government approach evidenced on this occasion by the acceptable face of the Minister.

I wish to raise a few specific points based on the draft proposed guidance, which provides a helpful agenda for our more detailed questions. I shall start with the beginning of chapter 9. Paragraph 9.4 deals with the fourth option:

    ``The Secretary of State currently has no plans to make these arrangements available to other councils in England''.

Like the Minister's, that statement does not begin to explain whence the distinction arose in the first place. It continues:

    ``if representations are made to the Secretary of State to make regulations specifying other descriptions of local authorities then the Secretary of State will consider them carefully and take a view on how to proceed.''

Is that a change of policy? The language is certainly different from that used by the Minister for Local Government and the Regions. If other councils liked the idea—perhaps because, containing 86,000 people, they were no longer regarded as a shire district—and wanted to operate under the new system, how amenable would the Secretary of State be to the proposal?

Paragraph 9.6 describes the alternative arrangements in summary. Does the Minister agree that it effectively describes the Wiltshire model? I recall haranguing Ministers in Committee and debating with them the views of Peter Chalke, the leader of Wiltshire council. Eventually, if only to shut me up, the Minister for Local Government and the Regions said that she would send officials to Wiltshire to examine their system. I assume that those officials eventually returned. Will the Minister confirm that paragraph 9(6) refers, in effect, to a Wiltshire model, run by an enlightened Conservative county council? If Wiltshire was already operating the system before the Local Government Bill saw the light of day, why should it not be allowed—if it applied under paragraph 9(4)—to establish alternative arrangements?

Under paragraph 9(7), the Secretary of State sets out various criteria that must be applied to councils operating the alternative arrangements. How does the Minister envisage its being enforced? Decisions are supposed to be ``efficient, transparent and accountable''. Can that be achieved by having scrutiny and overview committees and what he calls a streamlined number of committees in the councils, or is another mechanism meant to deliver that?

Paragraph 9.8 states that

    ``the full council of the local authority sets the policy framework'',

but is that not the system that prevailed before the Act came into force? That is the way in which local government should operate. I hope that the Minister is not attempting to re-invent the wheel. One of our major objections to the philosophy behind the Act was that back-bench councillors would see their role shrink under the executive scrutiny split. On the next page of the guidance, paragraph 9.12 says that

    ``local authorities will have many options as to the precise arrangements they adopt.''

However, the guidance and regulations seem pretty prescriptive. I cannot see much scope for variation, but if the Minister can give the Committee examples of the sort of variation that he would be prepared to tolerate, it would be useful.

There is quite a lot of reference to policy making under the alternative arrangements. In particular, paragraph 9.30 refers to the requirement that any councillor who is not a member of a policy or scrutiny committee should have an opportunity

    ``to feed their views into the development of any such plan or strategy.''

What role does the Minister envisage under the alternative arrangements for the political group system, which used to operate under the committee system? Is it still approved of as a device for individual councillors to give their views on a major issue that concerns the council? Further on, paragraph 9.33 talks about the necessity for arrangements

    ``to enable open and informed debate on reports from overview and scrutiny committees; and...public participation''.

Will the new regulations that the Government have introduced—again, with Liberal Democrat help and despite our opposition—on so-called key decision making, key decisions and secrecy apply with equal rigour to councils operating alternative arrangements?

Another section deals with the roles of councillors. It is interesting that the Government are trumpeting the fact that, under the alternative arrangements, all councillors

    ``will have important roles under a new constitution''.

Our argument, however, was that under the former system—which in some cases needed to be streamlined and in many cases had been—all councillors had value and worth and were able to give their views on major issues in the council. Paragraph 9.46 says that the overview and scrutiny committees

    ``should be a key mechanism for enabling councillors to represent the views of their constituents''.

Those committees constitute the main means to hold decision makers to account in public. However, the point about policy committees—and committees in the former system—is that they allowed councillors to hold the system to account. Unless a matter was confidential, members of the public could attend the committee, listen to the discussion and see the relevant papers, the agendas and so on. By trying to graft the overview and scrutiny committees on to what is, in effect, the committee system, are not the Government creating an element of duplication? There are, therefore, several detailed issues on which I should like the Minister to comment.

There is also an issue about the party whip. The Minister may recall that we discussed at some length in Committee whether whipping should take place. The Government are prepared to say that whipping is incompatible with overview and scrutiny and to recommend that it should not take place, so why are they not prepared to put their money where their mouth is and say in the regulations that whipping should not happen? Is that because, as we have said, in some Labour-run authorities the whipping of members on overview and scrutiny committees has gone on and will continue to go on? Could the Minister also confirm the way in which the ``core roles'' of the chief executive are defined after consultation with and the agreement of organisations such as the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives?

I commend the Government on their apparent U-turn in allowing members of policy committees to sit on overview and scrutiny committees, while accepting the principles set out in the guidance and the regulations that no member should be involved in scrutinising a decision in which he or she has been involved. We come back to the unpleasant taste left in the mouth by that rather grubby deal with the Liberal Democrats on that narrow set of provisions. The lateness of the deal to preserve the legislation in the House of Lords has put extra pressure on the timetable for commencement. There has been little time for the regulations to be aired since publication and some of the councils that are affected feel that they are being forced through to meet a purely political timetable rather than for the benefit of local authorities or the communities they serve. Will the Minister now make it clear that the Government will relax the deadline for the receipt of proposals made under the regulations, especially since some, perhaps many—more may be affected as time goes on—authorities are affected by the foot and mouth crisis and are rightly preoccupied with handling it? That would be helpful of the Minister.

The regulations arise only because of an absurd, eleventh-hour compromise. They have no logical basis and I hope that the role of the Liberal Democrats in that compromise will be remembered.

5.31 pm

Mr. Foster: I join others in expressing my pleasure at serving under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. In view of the time, it will benefit the Committee if I keep my remarks as short as possible. I shall ask a relatively short series of questions, with one or two comments in passing, not least in respect of the contribution of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson).

On the Local Authorities (Conduct of Referendums) (England) Regulations 2001, I await with interest—as does the Minister—the contribution of the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) on the title of mayor. The Minister said that he hoped to minimise any confusion; he will have to explain to the hon. Lady and to my constituents what help the Government are giving to ensure that, because they are insisting that the title of mayor apply to both non-elected mayors and elected mayors. In an area such as mine where we do not have a lord mayor but a mayor, the office of mayor created by a referendum would cause considerable difficulty. How does the Minister believe that he is helping us minimise the confusion that will undoubtedly arise?

I particularly wish to ask the Minister about the arrangements for expenses limits on referendums. That question is of particular importance to electors and residents in Berwick-upon-Tweed where there is a real possibility of such a referendum in the near future. I entirely agree with the Minister that it makes much sense for that referendum to take place on the same date as the intended local elections on 3 May. Will the Minister explain the position on election expenses, particularly for local council candidates who wish to express on their literature their view for or against the referendum proposition? As the Minister knows, expenses limits apply in relation to literature relating to the referendum. Will council candidates who express a view and, perhaps, explain their position on the mayoral ballot be expected to apportion some of their own election expenses to the mayoral election expense limit? A much more sensible solution would be to assume that that is simply part and parcel of standing for the local election and will not count towards the mayoral election expense limits. Will that be possible? I should like an urgent response to that because, as I am sure the Minister will appreciate, candidates are wondering what they can and cannot say in their election literature.

Will the Minister comment further on the role of the Electoral Commission? As the Committee will know, the Electoral Commission, which was developed as a result of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, will not come fully into operation until 1 July. Once it is fully in place, the Government intend to consult it, although that will be rather after the fact; we shall have already debated the matter, and decisions will have been made. What discussions have taken place with the people involved, who are already in place in a shadow capacity?

The hon. Member for Eastbourne rightly drew our attention to the fact that a local council will be able to state its intended fall-back position. However, if I have correctly interpreted regulation 5, and in particular paragraph (2), the local authority will not be able to produce any literature, other than to cover the issues that the Minister rightly raised, during the 28 days preceding the referendum. Does that mean that, during that 28-day period, the local authority will not be able to publish any details about its intended fall-back position? If so, people will be casting their votes in significant ignorance of the options available to them.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne rightly points out that interesting circumstances have now arisen. If a ballot is held for a mayoral option that is subsequently rejected, it will be possible for the fall-back position to be along the lines of the fourth option for the smaller councils. Will the Minister confirm my understanding that that is the ingenious route that might have been envisaged during those apparently shabby, disgraceful, grubby and absurd discussions that took place before a vote in another place? Will he confirm that that will be possible? If I am correct in my interpretation, why will it not be possible for a council to describe the fall-back position within 28 days of the referendum ballot?

If I have misunderstood the regulations, I apologise, and the Minister may be able to explain the matter more clearly. However, as I understand the wording of regulations 6(1) and (2), more than one campaign organiser is allowed. An expenses limit of £2,000 plus 5p per elector has been set for each campaign organiser. It would be possible for one side of the argument to have as many campaign organisers as it wanted, which would mean, in effect, no expense limit. How will that work? If one side has five campaign organisers and the other has only one, one side will have a total expense limit that is five times more than that of the other side. I presume that I have simply failed to find the regulation that will put a stop to such activity.

In the first order, regulation 13 allows for the appointment of ``counting observers'' to represent referendum petition organisers at the counting of votes. Will it be possible also to appoint counting observers to represent those who oppose the proposition in the referendum question?

With regard to the alternative arrangements, I am delighted that local councils' views have been taken on board and that a number of changes have been made, not least the exclusion of regulatory committees from the five committees that will be specified in the guidance. However, will such exclusion be purely a matter of guidance? Will it be possible in certain circumstances—with the Secretary of State's approval—to exceed the figure of five? If a council were to introduce a fall-back position following a ``no'' vote in a referendum, there would be considerable ambiguity as to the implication of that figure. Councils that are much larger than those within the 85,000 limit for the fourth option could introduce such a fall-back position, and five committees might well be far too small a number to allow them to carry out their duties effectively. It is particularly important that the Minister explains clearly the extent to which councils will be required to adhere to the figure of five.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne described the requirement for alternative arrangement councils to submit proposals to the Secretary of State by the end of June as a timetable for political purposes. I am not sure what those purposes might be, but it is clear that there is very little time between now and the end of June. Given that the deadline is very tight, and given the additional pressures faced by many councils throughout the country as a result of foot and mouth—to which the hon. Member for Eastbourne rightly referred—will the Minister consider the representations that I know he has received from a number of councils to extend that time scale?

On the neighbourhood renewal fund, the Minister failed to deal effectively with my point about the amount of money spent and the deprivation indices. I hope that he will take my word for it that there is a clear lack of detailed correlation between deprivation indices and money spent through the various funds that the Government have made available to date. If the Government are to achieve their strategy, which I welcome, it is clearly necessary to keep a close eye on ensuring a much tighter correlation than has existed heretofore. As I have said, it is important to take into account the various sources of funding—I gave the example of the new opportunities fund, but there are others—that might be made available to areas of high deprivation. I hope that the Minister will genuinely take on board the importance of tighter correlation.

In respect of deprivation indices, over recent months much discussion has taken place in various quarters—including within the Department—about the need to look more carefully at the issue of deprived areas and the definition of the size of area that will be considered. Relatively wealthy areas may contain pockets of deprivation. At the moment, councils that cover an area not deemed to be greatly deprived overall but which includes areas of high deprivation find it difficult to gain access to any assistance. When I have put similar questions to Ministers in the past, they have assured me that we are moving towards councils being given help in those circumstances. So far, I have not yet received a satisfactory answer as to how, for example, the London road in my constituency, which includes areas of very high deprivation, will be able to obtain assistance. I would welcome the Minister's response to that; if not now, in writing.

In response to the hon. Member for Eastbourne, I am happy to state publicly that I am delighted about the outcome of the arrangement that the Liberal Democrats had with the Government, which culminated in the decision that was taken in another place. Clearly, the hon. Gentleman has always been opposed to getting rid of section 28, but I am delighted that that was made possible by Liberal Democrat assistance in another place.

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