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Mayoral Referendums

Mr. Blizzard: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions what the Government's response is to the Electoral Commission's report on its review of mayoral referendums; and if he will make a statement. [41861]

Mr. Raynsford: We welcome the report "Reinvigorating Democracy? Mayoral Referendums in 2001" which the Electoral Commission published on 1 February 2002. We said in the recent Local Government White Paper, "Strong Local Leadership—Quality Public Services" that we would learn from the lessons of the first round of mayoral referendums, in order to refine and improve the process. The Electoral Commission's report is an important contribution to that work.

The Government share the Commission's view of the importance of electors understanding fully what they are voting on and having unbiased, factual information on the issues surrounding the introduction of executive arrangements involving a directly-elected mayor.

It was following the recommendations of the Fifth Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life that we made provision in the Local Authorities (Conduct of Referendums) (England) Regulations 2001, which were approved by Parliament, to prohibit councils from undertaking proactive information campaigns within 28 days of a referendum. We note the Commission's conclusion that this may be preventing full information reaching electors on the issues, in the circumstances of mayoral referendums where often there are no well- defined "yes" or "no" campaign groups.

Accordingly we will be reviewing with the Electoral Commission and others, whether this prohibition should be relaxed. Any relaxation would need to include safeguards to maintain strict impartiality. The Electoral Commission has suggested that the text of such material be cleared with them in advance. We welcome that the Electoral Commission are considering how they might

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provide electors in authorities holding mayoral referendums with factual and impartial material, pending the outcome of the review of the 28-day prohibition.

We believe that the involvement by the Electoral Commission will meet the concerns of some, which were noted in the Commission's report, that the current wording of the referendum question, that Parliament had approved, could not be relied upon to guarantee a result which fairly and accurately reflected local electors' views. Accordingly we see no grounds for Government intervention to seek to postpone any referendum that local authorities are, or will be, planning to hold, including those as a result of a petition by electors.

We believe that the current question specified in regulations, developed following extensive consultation, is fair and clear. Nevertheless, we are pleased to accept the Electoral Commission's invitation to work with them to see if the text of the referendum question itself can be improved so that all will be satisfied that it is clear and free from any potential bias. We recognise that while we are actively working with the Commission on possible changes to the question and the rules on the provision of information, it may be perceived as wrong for Government to take any decision on whether or not to direct the holding of a referendum. We do not therefore intend to take any more decisions until after we have completed this work. We expect to complete the work by summer 2002.

We had indicated that the Secretary of State was minded to direct mayoral referendums in Bradford and Birmingham on the grounds that councils in these areas have not had due regard to the outcome of the consultation they have been required to carry out. The Secretary of State remains so minded but has decided to await the outcome of our further work with the Commission before coming to final decisions on whether or not to use his powers of direction in these cases. My Department is writing to these councils setting out in full our position on directing them to hold a referendum, in the light of the representation we have received.

We also welcome the other suggestions the Electoral Commission makes for councils to improve how referendums are run. My Department will help promulgate these suggestions to councils through the regular contacts it holds with authorities holding mayoral ballots.

In short, the Commission's report is an important contribution to our refining and improving the process of mayoral elections which are at the heart of our policy that people should be able to choose how they are governed locally.

Affordable Housing

Mr. Kidney: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions how many affordable housing units in (a) rural districts and (b) extreme rural districts in England have (i) been sold under right to buy and (ii) been newly built, showing for each district the net change, in each year since 1991 to 2001. [35161]

Ms Keeble: The information requested is presented in a summary table which has been placed in the Libraries of the House.

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Mr. Evans: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions what the average response time was for responding to departmental correspondence; what percentage of letters took longer

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than one month for a response; and what percentage took longer than three months for a response in each of the last five years. [37439]

Dr. Whitehead: The available information, relating to DTLR and its predecessor, is as follows:

Ministerial correspondence (including MPs' correspondence, invitations and inter-departmental correspondence)

Number of letters receivedReplies within 15-day target (%)Replies within 20-day target (%)Replies that took longer than one month after the 15-day target (%)Replies that took longer than three months after the 15-day target (%)
1997 (DETR)38,05951(10)(10)(10)
1998 (DETR)31,79858(10)(10)(10)
1999 (DETR)(11)26,1154664134
2000 (DETR)31,445698172
2001 (DETR/DTLR)(12)25,613829041

(10) Not available.

(11) This relates only to the period from April to December 1999 as the information for the first quarter is not available due to technical difficulties.

(12) For 2001 the figures include correspondence addressed to DETR up until the general election and thereafter to DTLR.

Non-ministerial correspondence
(from previous "Six Service Standards" reports)

PeriodTotal volume receivedPercentage replied to within 15 working days
1 April 1997—31 March 1998672,98096
1 April 1998—31 March 1999546,38594
1 April 1999—31 March 2000804,40495
1 April 2000—31 March 20011,161,73697
1 April 2001—31 December 2001472,08399

Catering Services

Mr. Bercow: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions what the cost was of (a) in-house canteen and (b) other catering services provided by his Department in each of the last four years. [38918]

Dr. Whitehead: The figures are for DTLR(C) HQ buildings.

London Underground

Tom Brake: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions on which date the contracts tendered by bidders Metronet and Tube Lines wishing to enter into a public private partnership with London Underground Ltd. were first received by (a) his Department, (b) the Treasury, (c) Ernst and Young, (d) London Underground Ltd., (e) the Mayor of London and Transport for London and (f) the Health and Safety Executive. [38969]

Mr. Jamieson: London Underground is responsible for the development of PPP contracts for the modernisation of the Underground's infrastructure. Draft contracts were issued with invitations to tender in October 1999 and have since been revised and updated to reflect changes to London Underground's requirements, negotiations with bidders and consultation with the Mayor and Transport for London.

Throughout the process, revisions of the draft PPP contracts have been shared with DTLR, HM Treasury, the Health and Safety Executive and, since they were established, the Mayor and Transport for London. Ernst and Young were contracted to provide independent advice to the Secretary of State in October 2001. They received the draft contract the same month and were updated as it developed.

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