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Lord Whitty: Perhaps I may clarify that specific point. The White Paper made it clear that the mayoral elections would fall in the fallow year; for example, in unitary authorities. Therefore, there would be an intermeshing of the kind envisaged by the noble Baroness.

Baroness Hamwee: I thank the Minister for that explanation. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Dixon-Smith moved Amendment No. 363:

("(8) No order may be made under this section unless the Secretary of State has consulted the particular authority or authorities concerned in the order and has obtained their agreement to the scheme to be made in the order.").

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 363 follows fairly conveniently the debate that we have just had on the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. Under Clause 58, the Secretary of State will have the power to determine whether an authority is elected on a three-year cycle, a two-year cycle, or all together. The amendment seeks to ensure that, before he makes an order which might change a particular local authority's custom and style of elections, the Secretary of State consults the local authority concerned and obtains its agreement to his proposal. The Minister may find that last provision rather more difficult to take, but where an authority is used to and happy with, let us say, a scheme of annual elections of one-third and where the Secretary of State--let us suppose that it is me--has a prejudice in favour of all in, all out, he should have the grace to consult those who are directly affected and obtain their agreement to any change that he proposes. That should apply unless there is an overriding reason of national necessity as to why the change should be made over the local view of what is happening and what should happen.

Local people like their local customs. It has always appeared paradoxical to me that councils like to be elected in thirds. There is no doubt that some councils like that, even though I find it illogical. When I entered local government, the authority was all in, all out. After a while I found that I had a certain affection for that rather simple system.

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The purpose of the amendment is simple. It is to require that before the Secretary of State exercises his power to make regulations, he should consult and obtain agreement.

I hope that the Minister will forgive me this comment. Had all the guidance and some examples of regulations been provided before we started discussing the Bill, we would not have needed to have this discussion. This is an important point. Local communities across the country have a vital interest in their local electoral systems. The amendment seeks to ensure that those vital interests are properly taken into account. I beg to move.

Baroness Hanham: My Amendment No. 364 takes a little further what the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, proposes. Throughout the proceedings on the Bill, we have been talking about consultation. It is clearly the Government's intention that communities should be consulted by local authorities on more or less everything. It therefore seems logical that if the arrangements for elections are to be changed, an opportunity should be given for those communities to be consulted on the regulations. My amendment would allow a period of three months for that consultation to take place and for views to be returned to the Minister. Furthermore, any change to the frequency or nature of the electoral scheme should be laid before Parliament in draft form. My amendment would allow for that to happen.

This is a serious matter. People feel strongly about it. Therefore, there should be the maximum opportunity for comment before such a major change is made.

Lord Whitty: In terms of consultation, one would presume that the regulations--the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, complained that they are not available--and, indeed, the practice would make it clear that it would be inconceivable that the Government would not consult interested parties on a change to electoral procedures requiring the drafting of orders under these clauses. However, the noble Lord's amendment goes further than that. It provides in effect that the local authority might well have a veto over such provisions. We cannot accept that. The whole purpose of this measure is to provide for councils to become more responsive to their electorates. I know that there are different views in local government on that matter as indeed there are on all sides of the Committee. Nevertheless, that is the purpose. At the end of the day, someone has to take a decision.

It is our view that the Secretary of State should take the decision if there is that conflict. The noble Lord clearly has a different view and would like to preserve the privileges and practices of the county of Essex and of others which want to stick to their current arrangements. We consider that in that conflict the Secretary of State should take the decision. One hopes

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that there will not be many differences in this context. Consultation should lead to agreement on both content and timing.

Perhaps I may turn to the approach of the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. She should take what I said about consultation as confirmation that I would envisage a period of consultation. I would not want to be bound to 72 days prior to the order being laid before Parliament. That is unduly prescriptive. More importantly, I do not think that it is appropriate that that should be the subject of the draft affirmative procedure. Indeed, when the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee considered the matter, it did not suggest that this area of order making should be drawn to the attention of the House. What we propose is proportionate and appropriate for the negative procedure. Therefore, I cannot accept the noble Baroness's amendment. I ask the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Dixon-Smith: The Minister has disappointed me in his response, but we have crossed swords in a metaphorical sense over this kind of issue on a number of occasions. The difference between us is that he thinks that the Secretary of State is superior on local community matters to the local community itself. I happen to take the other view. That is an irreconcilable difference, but at least we can both respect the other's point of view. I hope that the noble Lord respects mine as much as I respect his.

The noble Lord has given an assurance that there will be a great deal of consultation over these matters. I was happy to hear that part of his response. I was not quite so certain when he said that he was sure that the Secretary of State would reach agreement. After all, if a big man is holding a 14-pound hammer over your head and he says, "We want to do things this way", it is not very easy to disagree with him. However, I take the point that there will be consultation and that, of course, things have to change.

I should make the point that elections of councils by one-third with possibly a mayor every fourth year, so that annual elections are taking place, does not necessarily make a council more responsive to its electorate. If the electorate gets what one might call "electoral boredom" and ceases to participate or lowers its participation rate in the local elections as a result of electoral boredom, the opposite effect may well occur. All systems are fallible. We can have wonderful academic arguments both ways about them.

With the assurance about consultation, I am happy; with the rest of it, I am not. However, there is nothing more to be said. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 364 not moved.]

Clause 58 agreed to.

Clauses 59 and 60 agreed to.

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5.30 p.m.

Lord Tope moved Amendment No. 364A:

    After Clause 60, insert the following new clause--


(" . The Secretary of State shall establish a commission which shall within one year of the enactment of this Act report on electoral systems for election to local authorities.").

The noble Lord said: I must begin with what amounts to a declaration of interest. For nearly six years I have been a member of a council--indeed, for most of that time its leader--where my party holds around 85 per cent of the seats, having received just over 50 per cent of the votes. That is unfair. I cope with the embarrassment I feel by reflecting that, not so many years ago, my party polled 35 per cent of the vote in my borough but took only 5 per cent of the seats. The proponents of the present system would say that it is a question of swings and roundabouts, and that that is fair. But it is not fair. I also look to the London borough of Newham, where the Labour Party polls a similar share of the vote to that of my party in my borough, yet takes every one of the council seats. That cannot be right or fair.

The Government have said on a number of occasions--most notably in the White Paper that began the process that we are concluding today--that they are concerned about disproportionate numbers of seats held on local authorities, that that is generally a bad thing and that it can lead to complacency, or worse. That is correct--although I hasten to add that it is not necessarily so. Some councils with very large one-party majorities manage to resist those temptations and operate very well. But it is not the right way to do things.

I have always believed that a system of proportional representation would come to local government first. It seemed to me that local government was ideally suited to a more proportionate system. I have been proved wrong. If it does come to local government, it will do so last. We have already seen proportionate systems in Scotland and Wales, and Northern Ireland has had such a system for many years. Now we are to have such a system in London.

A more proportionate system for councils, reflecting more accurately the outcome of the votes cast, has long been necessary. It still is necessary, and will be so whatever the council structure. But if anything, it becomes even more necessary if councils are to adopt the system of an executive mayor, whereby great power is vested in the hands of one person and a strong and important scrutiny role is given to the rest of the council. In such circumstances it is even more important that an assembly or council reflects the views of voters as a whole. The present first-past-the-post system does not do so.

The last time we discussed the voting system for elected mayors, one of the arguments put forward by the Minister for not changing the system was that we have adopted it for London and therefore we must follow the practice for the rest of the country. I now put that argument back to the Minister. We have

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adopted a kind of proportional system of voting for the Greater London Authority. In responding to me on Tuesday, the Minister argued that what is right for London must be right for the country. I suggest that the same argument applies here.

The amendment deliberately does not propose any particular voting system. It proposes a commission--not one that sits for ever and whose report is then put on a shelf, but one which will quickly review all the work that has been done in this area and report within one year on the various proposals. That would include the first-past-the-post system. We do not prescribe the outcome, although I have a strong view on what it should not be. The commission should examine this one issue, which the Government have remarkably failed to address in spite of all the misgivings that they have expressed about one-party states, and in spite of all the other measures they have adopted, some good, some less good, in an attempt to deal with that. They have persistently failed to tackle the one issue above all that would deal with the dominance of one-party states where the votes of the electors are not necessarily for one party.

I hope that we shall receive a positive response from the Government. The issue is of great concern to many people in and concerned about local government. It now demands attention, especially following the welcome changes that have taken place in all the other electoral systems except that for Westminster. I look forward to a positive response from the Minister. I beg to move.

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