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Baroness Hamwee: I have tabled a number of amendments as amendments to government amendments. Going at them backwards--because why not--Amendment No. 236A seeks to include a reference to the Electoral Commission. I hope that the Minister can again assure the Committee that the Government, to use his words, "have the matter in hand".
Amendments Nos. 206A and 206B are amendments to the Minister's amendments in regard to the calculation of what is required for a petition. I understand the difficulties that the Government have now realised there will be in calculating percentages; in working out the date on which the electoral register will apply; and how to set about a fair approach to the matter. None the less, I am concerned about the provision for a minimum number rather than for a percentage. A percentage of a local authority's electorate will be different from the numerical answer, obviously depending on the size of the electorate. I am unclear as to how the fairness and equality of the Government's approach in setting a minimum number for each local authority's area can be assessed. Will the Government publish a number for each area? If so, how will it be possible to compare number by number? Does it mean that there will be different percentages for each area?
My first amendment, Amendment No. 206A, seeks to deal with the issue of percentages rather than numbers; and my second amendment, Amendment No. 206B, suggests that there should be a standard minimum; otherwise, if different numbers apply in different local authority areas, there could very easily be justified allegations of partial or preferential treatment of particular authorities.
In regard to Amendments Nos. 199 and 200, I regret that I did not quite hear what the Minister said about the 5 per cent threshold and the comments that had been made in the press. It seems to me that these amendments will mean that there will be no statutory minimum. While 5 per cent may not be the right figure, I confess to a concern that there is no percentage mentioned on the face of the Bill as a threshold for such a petition. It is an important matter which should be dealt with on the face of the Bill.
Lord Dixon Smith: I have tabled Amendments Nos. 201, 218 and 223 in this group. Amendments Nos. 201 and 223 seek to permit referendums on whether to cease to operate executive arrangements where a community decided that what was going on was not working in its best interests. One might consider that this goes against the spirit of the Bill, but the spirit of the Bill is to dictate that a particular conclusion should be the outcome. I do not think that that is reasonable; I think that communities ought to be able to decide what their administrative arrangements should be. That is my interpretation of the European Charter of Local Self Government. We have therefore tabled these two amendments to support that case.
Amendment No. 218 is somewhat different. It is tabled as an amendment to government Amendment No. 217. The Bill as originally drafted required 5 per cent of the electorate to make a petition in order to force a change in the system if a local community was not satisfied with either its executive arrangements or any other arrangements and wanted to bring about a
Amendment No. 217 changes that very fundamentally. It states that the number required may be determined by regulation and shall not exceed 5 per cent. I echo the voice of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that that causes some concern. Not exceeding 5 per cent gives the Minister discretion. I trust his discretion, but I do not trust it all the way down to zero or, shall we say, 1 per cent. My amendment seeks to provide that, while 5 per cent will be the maximum, the minimum may not go below 3 per cent. I do not think that that is unreasonable. A little while ago we had a discussion on floors. It may be that the Minister will repeat his view that the idea of floors is not valid in this case. I think it is valid and that many of the arguments already used today are appropriate.
Baroness Hanham: Amendment No. 219 seeks to do very much what the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, and the amendments of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, seek to do--that is, to stop the Minister's powers under Clause 22(5), which states:
As has clearly been said, under the government amendments the figure could go down to as low as 1 per cent if the Minister so wished. In some local authorities that would mean that very few people would be required to sign a petition to force a referendum.
A maximum and a minimum of five would be about right. My noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith suggests three. However, we must include a realistic minimum figure, bearing in mind that electorates vary substantially, from a borough of 120,000 to a county council of far more than that. My amendment seeks to support those already tabled and to limit the powers of the Secretary of State to reduce the figure to one that becomes meaningful in that too few people can put forward for a petition.
Lord Filkin: One recognises that the provision for a referendum in order to show public support before a substantial change is made to the system of elected mayors is right. That is a serious test and there must be clear public consent before we change our current system of political governance.
However, one does not want the test to be so severe that it is never possible to make change and innovation. One is aware of a dilemma because most local authorities are substantially opposed to the idea of elected mayors whereas the public, surprisingly by a majority of two to one, are strongly interested in the
When we are in a mode of experimentation, we should not put a specific number on to the face of the Bill. No one knows for certain how the debate will play out in practice. There may be cases for going above or below 5 per cent, although I note that the Government do not intend to go below that threshold. Nevertheless, we may find in five years' time that the debate has substantially changed and that a good case made one way or the other for making a variation commands support across the House.
Finally, I believe that one should approach the Government's new idea for co-ordinated referendums with an open and positive mind. The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, spoke about low turn-outs in such referendums. One way of ensuring a substantial or increased turn-out would be to have a national debate about whether certain areas of England wish to move towards elected mayors. Were such a co-ordinated referendum to take place, each area would still decide for itself whether it wanted change. But the fact that, say, most major cities had the debate simultaneously would guarantee substantial national attention and one hopes informed debate. That would strengthen the likelihood of a high turn-out.
Lord Whitty: I note my noble friend's recommendations in relation to the timing of the referendums, but that is not a matter for this Bill. In regard to the 5 per cent threshold, I indicated that we would not put a non-5 per cent figure on the face of the Bill. However, in response to the report of the Joint Committee the Government undertook to keep the position of thresholds under review. Since tabling our amendment, it has become clear that it does not deliver what we said in response to the Joint Committee in that it no longer indicates the flexibility that we indicated we wanted so that the threshold could be changed above or below the 5 per cent.
The amendment deals with a number of issues, but it does not deal with that issue. Therefore, with the indulgence of the Committee, we may need to return to that aspect and bring forward another minor amendment at the Report stage which includes the additional flexibility both for the Secretary of State in England and for the National Assembly in Wales. I hope that the Committee will recognise that this is not quite the end of the story in terms of the amendments.
As regards other amendments, I am afraid that we cannot accept Amendments Nos. 201 and 223 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith. We would not accept that it should be possible for local people to force a referendum to abandon arrangements with an elected mayor through a petition. Nor do we believe that the Secretary of State should have the power to do so. In either situation, local people will relatively recently twice have approved the arrangements for an elected mayor: first, through arrangements themselves for a referendum and, secondly, through the mayor's own mandate for his or her election. That does not mean that local people cannot petition the council for
In relation to Amendments Nos. 206A and 206B tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, I can reassure the Committee that the Government have no intention of setting a petitions threshold at any given time that differs between authority to authority. I understand that to be the main intention behind the amendment, but we do not believe that it achieves that. However, we shall examine it because that is our intention, too.
Despite arguments that have been made, we do not believe it sensible to define a petition threshold by way of an absolute number. The draft regulations and guidance we published make clear that we propose a percentage threshold. Currently we are thinking of starting at the 5 per cent figure, but with the flexibility to which I have referred.
The flexibility which Amendment No. 206A seeks to remove is necessary. For example, after experience of the petitioning process it may become apparent that in addition to a universal threshold of, say, 5 per cent there should also be a requirement for a minimum number of signatures on a petition from each ward or each part of, say, a shire county. We believe that the noble Baroness's amendment might restrict the enabling power in a way that would preclude us from doing that and I cannot accept that.
I regret that I must also oppose Amendments Nos. 218 and 219 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith. We believe that there needs to be some flexibility. Opinion polls have repeatedly shown that the vast majority of local people favour arrangements for an elected mayor but that most councils do not. If following consultation councils implement arrangements which do not reflect public opinion, there needs to be some way for local people to force their hand. That is where the petitioning process comes in.
As regards Amendment No. 236A, I can reassure the noble Baroness that we intend to consult the electoral commission, once it is in place, on the regulations. However, as I indicated earlier, we expect to proceed with moves by local authorities in the direction of the new structures before the likely date of the commencement of the commission. We therefore need these powers in this form without requirement to revert to the commission.
I hope that that explains why, with regret, I cannot take on board any of the Opposition amendments. I commend my amendment to the Committee.
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