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Seventh Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Monday 4 March 2002
[Mr. Alan Hurst in the Chair]
Draft Local Authorities (Conduct of Referendums) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2002
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Dr. Alan Whitehead): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Local Authorities (Conduct of Referendums) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2002.
It is a pleasure serving with you on this Committee, Mr. Hurst. The short draft amending regulations make two changes to the Local Authorities (Conduct of Referendums) (England) Regulations 2001, which came into force on 2 April last year, following approval in this House and in another place.
The first change, in paragraph (a) of regulation 2, addresses an anomaly in the principal regulations made last year, which provide that a local authority may hold a referendum under part II of the Local Government Act 2000 on an all-postal basis, but not if the referendum is to be combined with an election ballot. That is for the good reason that it would be confusing to ask the electorate to vote by post in a referendum and in person at a polling station in an election at the same time.
However, in rare circumstances, it is possible that a local authority may receive approval, under the terms of the Representation of the People Act 2000, to run an all-postal voting pilot in a local election with which a referendum is combined. Such circumstances have arisen in Hackney. The draft regulations make it clear that it will be possible for a local authority to hold an all-postal referendum ballot in combination with an all-postal election ballot.
On a related note, the second change, set out in paragraph (b) of regulation 2, opens up to referendums under part II of the Local Government Act the provisions of the Representation of the People Act that enable local authorities to apply for electoral innovation pilots. When the principal regulations were drafted and laid before Parliament, the Government considered carefully whether to propose that electoral pilot provisions should be applicable to such referendums. By that stage, there had been a successful first run of pilots in the May 2000 local elections.
However, on balance, we felt that it would be difficult to assess properly the success of pilot schemes, because of the absence, at that time, of data from other such referendums with which a pilot could be compared. Therefore, we provided only for all-postal balloting as a variation from traditional practice, as that had been the only innovation in May 2000 that had consistently increased turnout.
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Almost a year later, there have been 23 referendums under part II of the Local Government Act, with more to come in future months. The referendums have or will have included referendums combined with general and local election polls, stand-alone all-postal referendums and stand-alone traditional referendums. Accordingly, we believe that it is now appropriate to open up the full potential of the electoral innovation pilot scheme to referendums, as there is a decent body of evidence against which the success or otherwise of pilots can be assessed. Of course, any application for a referendum pilot will be subject to the same rigorous criteria and scrutiny that already apply to local election pilot applications, including the need for local cross-party support and for the involvement of the Electoral Commission.
In line with the requirements of the Local Government Act 2000, we have consulted the Electoral Commission, and it has expressed its support for the policy that would be given effect by the draft regulations.
Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield): I do not wish to oppose the regulations but seek some clarification. Will anything in the measure stop the Government doing what they did in Birmingham? A referendum on the structure of local government was held, and the result was declared, but Government have called in that referendum and said that they are minded to disallow it and insist that a separate referendum should take place. It is very odd that they should do that. It sounds as though they are saying, ''You got it wrong, oh people of Birmingham. You better have another shot at seeing whether you can get it right.'' Perhaps the Minister will comment on that point.
I find myself in the uncomfortable position of supporting the view of Birmingham city council—
The Chairman: Order. That intervention was far too long.
Dr. Whitehead: The issue relates to a possible lack of clarity concerning the intentions of people who voted in the initial council-run referendum in Birmingham. The decision taken by Birmingham city council as a result of that indicative consultation was in line with the wishes expressed by the people who took part in it. I remind the hon. Gentleman that that referendum was not carried out to see whether there should be a mayoral ballot; it was carried out as part of a consultation process, which was reported to the Government as a way in which to test the water regarding what the public of any particular local authority area—in that instance Birmingham—thought about proposals for new forms of local government management. Whether the Government would be minded to direct a referendum is not directly relevant to the regulations.
The regulations essentially enable a local authority conducting a referendum, howsoever that referendum has been brought about, to conduct an electoral pilot as part of the machinery of that referendum. Indeed, a local authority will be able to conduct a referendum by, for example, postal ballot at the same time as a council election, which would also be conducted by
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postal ballot. The regulations do not impinge on whether the Government may or may not direct a referendum because they are ancillary to that. They will enable local authorities to take decisions or to apply for electoral pilots after a referendum has been called.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Dr. Whitehead: I recall that I had said ''finally'' a few minutes ago. Finally, I place on record that I am satisfied that the regulations comply with the Human Rights Act 1998. I commend them to the House.
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): What a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hurst.
We do not oppose in principle any innovative measures that the Government wish to introduce to increase voter turnout at elections. In particular, we are interested in anything that the Government can do to improve turnout in mayoral elections. In the 24 or so that have taken place to date, the average turnout is woefully low—I think that it is less than 25 per cent. In principle, we are not against the proposals introduced by the Government in the statutory instrument.
However, rather than the rather ad hoc approach that leaves decisions to local authorities or local areas and the piece by piece build-up of information that the Government seem to be proposing, it would be better to have objective trial schemes that could be measured and monitored and involve appropriate controls. There is a difference, although it is subtle, between pilot schemes and fully thought out trials.
We are concerned about low turnout in mayoral elections. Perhaps the Government's grand idea of allowing local people to decide whether they want a mayor is a complete waste of time from the outset, given that more than two thirds of those who have already voted have voted resoundingly against the proposal. In a letter dated 7 February, the Minister's colleague, the Minister for Local Government, kindly wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), introducing the statutory instrument. He made the point that it would bring
''clarification forward . . . as one of the local authorities that I announced to the House earlier this week as being successful in an application for an all-postal election pilot from May 2002 is keen to hold a referendum at the same time in order to achieve greater administrative and turnout benefits.''
He did not specify the authority, so it would be helpful if the Minister confirmed which authority has persuaded the Government to draft this legislation in a fairly short space of time. We are left with the feeling that it has not been well thought out, planned or scrutinised during the various stages of internal debate. The regulations seem to have been amended because one local authority thought that that would be a good idea. It is not good enough to base legislation
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on one local authority's wish to combine a postal ballot in the May elections with a referendum.
The key point in legislation on electoral law must be to encourage a greater turnout at local and other elections. The previous general election was something of a disappointment for all politicians. Unless we address that problem, there is every indication that it will get worse as the years go by. The Government have a responsibility to consider that carefully, and produce sensible proposals to ensure that the seemingly inexorable decline is arrested and turned around so that people feel connected with their local democracy—and that of the country as a whole—and will turn out in reasonable numbers at the various elections.
The mayoral elections have been greeted with overwhelming apathy and we wonder whether the Government should call a halt to them. Otherwise, money and time will be wasted. If there is no real feel for massive change, we perceive little point in continuing down that road. We shall not oppose the statutory instrument because we are supportive of ideas and attempts to ensure higher turnout. We accept the regulations with various reservations: we want to know why, at a late stage in the proceedings and on one local authority's say-so, the Government have fitted this statutory instrument into a very busy programme. We do not see it as a significant priority in any way.