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Although he is not in his place, my noble friend Lord Bassam has told this House on more than one occasion that he was introduced to politics by a parish poll in the village in which he then lived. I, as a parish councillor over the past few years, was involved in a parish poll, which we lost, as to where a leisure centre should be sited. So such polls have a value.
However, we have real sympathy with the concerns of my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton in relation to parish and town council polls. We too are aware of the recent events where a local group sought to use them to pursue its aims on the European single currency and I say no more about that.
The situation concerning those polls has shown that there is indeed a lack of clarity as to precisely when it is legal for polls to be called and it has given rise to real problems of uncertainty for parish clerks. It is they who must decide if a specific poll is a legitimate use of what are, after all, public funds provided by their community council's taxpayers.
We are clear about two things. First, that parish polls can be a legitimate and effective way in which local people can rightly have a say about local issues which are vital to their communities and day-to-day lives. We want to see stronger democratic local governance, and parish polls can be part of that.
Secondly, we are equally clear that it is an abuse for pressure groups to seek to further their aims at public expense, and some of the attempts to try to use parish polls do not seem to be anything else than such an attempt.
We are therefore sympathetic to any measures which would strengthen the parish poll provisions and render them less susceptible to misuse. Indeed, given the recent events, we have received a number of representations on behalf of town and parish councils asking us to do just that. We have been asked to consider raising the threshold in order to prevent abuse of the current rules. We have been asked about the kind of questions which parish polls can be used to decide.
What has not been made clear to us is what any higher threshold should be. Nor is there clear consensus about what questions a parish poll should be able to cover. So while the principles of how we should approach parish polls are clear, the details of how to achieve them are not. However, my noble friend's amendment puts forward what the House may consider to be a sensible view of the level of support that should be received.
For those reasons, we cannot accept the particular suggestions that my noble friend makes tonight. But I can say that as the Government take forward their rural policies we will examine and consult widely on how the important parish polls provisions should be reformed so as on the one hand to provide certainty and prevent abuse and on the other to allow local people to have a real say about local issues which really matter.
In case your Lordships thought that during the past hour I had taken a vow of silence, I feel that I should make this final contribution to the Report stage. The amendment relates to the commencement orders bringing into force the various parts of the Bill. As presently drafted, there is no provision for parliamentary scrutiny of such orders. As the Minister has admitted, it is a distinct possibility that there will be a general election less than 12 months after the provisions of the Bill relating to expenditure limits come into force. In such a case, I think that it is the Government's intention to use the powers in Clause 159(5) to alter the political parties' expenditure limits when they make the commencement order so that the limits are reduced to take account of the shorter period between the commencement of Part V and the day of the poll.
I have no objection to that in principle. However, I am concerned that any reduced limit should be weighted to take into account that the vast majority of parties' expenditure takes place in the few weeks immediately prior to a general election. In other words, I do not want £20 million to be divided into 12 and the necessary months given the one-twelfth. I should probably have fair agreement on that.
I believe that it is the Government's intention after Royal Assent to seek the views of political parties on the appropriate level of the reduced expenditure. However, the reduced expenditure limits are important. At present, there is no mechanism in the Bill for Parliament to discuss them after they have been agreed. My amendment would provide that a commencement order which varies the election expenditure limits would be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. It is important that Parliament should scrutinise such a key change and it is hoped that there will be no complaints about that. I beg to move.
Lord Bach: My Lords, as the noble Lord has explained, the effect of his amendments would be to apply the affirmative resolution procedure to any commencement order containing transitional provisions of the type envisaged by Clause 159(5). The purpose is to enable a commencement order to specify lower limits for campaign and controlled expenditure in the event that Parts V and VI are brought into force less than 365 days in advance of the next election. Like the noble Lord, I leave it to others to speculate as to the timing of the next election and, consequently, whether lower limits will be needed.
Clause 159(5) does not justify a different approach in this case. It contains an entirely understandable and, in our view, routine transitional provision. We shall naturally want to consult the political parties on the limits to be applied to any truncated campaign period; indeed, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has already undertaken to do so. But the general approach is already set out in the Bill and we see no reason to submit the relevant commencement order to further parliamentary scrutiny. We would expect some back-end loading of the limits as the expectation must be that the majority of a party's expenditure will be incurred in the final few weeks of an election campaign. I should like to be able to persuade the noble Lord that there is nothing unusual about the commencement arrangements for this Bill, and I invite him to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Speaking as a member of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee, it is perfectly correct that in principle commencement orders are not subject to parliamentary scrutiny, but I have never seen a commencement order which contains authority to make transitional provisions. Orders that contain powers to make transitional provisions are usually subject to the negative, not affirmative, resolution procedure.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, makes the point clearer than I did. I fully accept that normally these order-making powers do not come before Parliament, and I do not try to change that situation. However, this is unusual in that at some stage in the next month or two a decision will be taken to change the terms of the provision and the £20 million limit. I am grateful for confirmation of the position of the Home Secretary and the added confirmation that back-end loading is understood. However, I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, makes a valid point.
Lord Bach: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, expresses a view with his usual force. However, the committee of which he is a member has approved the order-making power in this case, which we believe is sufficient. If the committee had not given its approval we would have had to think again.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I do not know whether the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee considered it in the light of the fact that it was likely to change the £20 million limit quite dramatically, but we cannot continue that debate at Report stage. I am grateful for the two points that the noble Lord has put on record. I still regard it as a pity. Perhaps the negative resolution procedure would have