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Mr. Field: My reply to the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Dr. Vis) was that it was not my place as the Member of Parliament for Cities of London and Westminster to consult other hon. Members' constituents. I am sure that he accepts that. The organisation of the business franchise has been subject to extensive consultation with City businesses and employees, and details of the proposals have been circulated by the corporation's publication, which comes out on a monthly or bi-monthly basis and has a circulation of 65,000.

Dr. Vis: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his replies to me and to my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). I would object to the hon. Gentleman visiting Finchley unless he told me in advance. However, he can come if he lets me know.

The people to whom he referred will receive a vote, but I do not want him to talk to people in Finchley or other constituencies. I want him to consult the people in the workplaces in the City and ask them, while they are at work, whether they want a vote. That is my point, and it is the one that he is avoiding.

Mr. Field: I am not avoiding anything.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. When the hon. Gentleman replies, will he relate his remarks to the motion?

Mr. Field: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), who said that we should accept the motion so that we will be able to examine any amendments that might lead to the extension of democracy. Indeed, the promoters are offering amendments that deserve serious consideration, and such consideration can take place only if the Bill is revived. On that basis, I hope that the House will support the revival motion.

5.54 pm

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford): Hon. Members will recall that Government representatives, myself included, have spoken in previous debates concerning this Bill. I therefore intend not to speak at length but merely to take a few moments to confirm why the Government believe that it is right for the Bill to have the opportunity to progress.

The Bill contains a number of provisions relating to the existing business franchise about which it is difficult, even for the Bill's main opponents, to complain. I refer

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specifically to measures designed to curb certain practices that are clearly unsatisfactory. For example, an individual may currently be entitled to a business vote if he or she is an owner or tenant of property in the City with a rateable value of just £10.

John McDonnell: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Raynsford: If my hon. Friend will bear with me for a moment, I should like to make a little progress. I have only just started my speech but will give way to him in a moment.

I was making the point that current provision allows individual owners or tenants of property with a rateable value of only £10 to have a vote even if they do not maintain a physical presence in the City. The Bill would tighten the definition of occupation to require physical presence on the premises and increase the rateable value threshold needed to qualify for a business vote to £200. It is also currently possible for an individual to be entitled to more than one vote in local elections in the City. The Bill would specifically prevent that. If the Bill is not revived, those anomalies will continue while we wait for another opportunity to end them.

I am surprised that my hon. Friends—I understand their strength of feeling—should, in effect, be advocating the retention of plural voting.

Mr. Etherington: I hope that my right hon. Friend is not suggesting that I advocated plural voting, because I spoke against that. I would be surprised if he were to quote me as having such a view. I am interested in the concept of—it is hard to think of the right term; perhaps this is the word to use—proportionality. Two categories come to mind when thinking about business premises and those present. What, for example, would be the position of a self-employed window cleaner who works in the vicinity? What would be the voting arrangements for a football ground, rugby pitch or other sporting facility in the area? Would we have to find out how many people attended over the season and average out that number? I am not trying to be clever, but I feel that I must exaggerate in order to show how ridiculous the concept is.

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend made a fair point in his speech about his occupying a number of premises and how he would regard it as wrong for him to have more than one vote. Although I accept entirely that it is not his intention to support plural voting, the effect of his succeeding in blocking the Bill's revival would be to allow the continuation of plural voting. Although I understand the sincerity of his argument, he must recognise that we are dealing with the reality, which is in many ways profoundly unsatisfactory. The Bill seeks to remedy some of those defects. Either he wishes to remedy those defects or not. If he is arguing against the revival of the Bill, he is in effect allowing such abuses to continue.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Raynsford: On my hon. Friend's specific question, which I shall seek to answer before giving way to some of my other hon. Friends, the definitions as proposed for the qualification for a business vote in the City are quite detailed—I do not intend to go into them as that would be contrary to the purpose of this debate—

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but would depend entirely on whether the business has premises in the City and the occupiers were working from those premises. Those are reasonably sensible criteria. The question is whether one accepts the premise—I know that my hon. Friend and others do not; I shall come to the matter in a moment—that there should in the unique circumstances of the City of London be a franchise related to residence not just by residential occupiers but by business occupiers.

John McDonnell: Will my right hon. Friend cut to the quick? Has he seen the invisible amendment up the sleeve of the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), who is sponsoring the Bill? Has he been consulted on it? Does he know whether No. 10 has had any communication with the City corporation on the amendment? Has there been any correspondence on the matter? If he has seen the amendment, what is his attitude to it? Are the Government supporting it? If he has not seen it, at what stage does he think that it will be produced?

Mr. Raynsford: I have not seen the amendment and would not expect to see it because we are considering a revival motion for a Bill that is not drafted in the way that the City corporation indicates it would like it to be drafted. The amendment, as I understand it, responds to specific issues raised in the House in the last Parliament and addressed criticisms made by my hon. Friend, among others. It is slightly bizarre of him to criticise amendments that seek to effect reforms and improvements that he himself advocated in the last Parliament.

John McDonnell rose

Mr. Raynsford: I shall give way once more. However, I wish to make progress as the House has been at this rather a long time.

John McDonnell: I do not know whether my right hon. Friend heard what he just said. He said that the motion seeks to revive a Bill that is not acceptable to the City corporation; it is about to be amended because it is unacceptable, yet we are being asked to revive it. The only amendment that I have seen is one that was floated 12 months ago, which did not respond in any way to our criticisms. It was a veiled way of bringing back a vote based on rateable value and businesses. I cannot believe that the City corporation has not consulted someone in Government. When our debate has finished, will my right hon. Friend go to No. 10 and ask who has been in dialogue with the City corporation?

Mr. Raynsford: I am sorry that my hon. Friend is being obtuse. A simple point is at stake—whether the Bill should be revived and, if so, whether it should be amended in the light of criticisms made during previous considerations. If my hon. Friend believed that the considerable period that the House has spent on the Bill will improve it, I would agree. However, he does not seem to take that view. As everyone knows, he does not like the Bill or the City corporation. He is doing everything possible to avoid any reform or change at all. I understand his position, but—

John McDonnell: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Raynsford: No; I have given way twice to my hon. Friend and I do not intend to do so again. He is

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opposed to the measure and does not wish it to proceed. A little frank speaking, rather than the pretence of speaking to the amendments, would be a lot better.

The main contention levelled against the Bill concerns the concept of expanding the business franchise to include the large number of companies in the City. I understand why its opponents, including many of my hon. Friends, find the expansion of a property-based business vote unacceptable. However, the reality is that such a franchise already exists for local elections in the City. It has long been accepted that that is the appropriate franchise for the unique circumstances of the City, which is essentially a business district with a resident population of about only 5,500 people, which would not make it a viable district for local government under any other circumstances. If we accept that in the unique circumstances of the City corporation it is appropriate that local business people should have a say in the election of those who make decisions for their area, it is wholly inappropriate that that right should be available only to unincorporated businesses.

The Bill would correct a huge imbalance. Sole traders and partnerships between them determine elections to the non-residential wards in the City's local elections, while incorporated businesses and the many people who work in them have no say whatsoever. The Bill includes provisions to determine how many votes are allocated to a company and to whom they are distributed within it.


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