Clause 50
Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill
6:54 pm

Time limit for holding further referendum

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Andrew Stunell (Shadow Secretary of State for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Communities and Local Government), Department for Communities and Local Government; Hazel Grove, Liberal Democrat)

I beg to move amendment No. 102, in clause 50, page 36, line 11, leave out ‘ten’ and insert ‘four’.

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Joe Benton (Bootle, Labour)

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 103, in clause 50, page 36, line 13, leave out ‘five’ and insert ‘four’.

7:15 pm
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Andrew Stunell (Shadow Secretary of State for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Communities and Local Government), Department for Communities and Local Government; Hazel Grove, Liberal Democrat)

The clause deals with the time limit within which a further referendum can be held to change governance arrangements. The Bill specifies a period of 10 years in England and five in Wales. Why there is a difference is an interesting question, and I am sure that the Minister has a suitable explanation. The period seems to us to restrict the choices open to a community for changing its governance arrangements if it discovers that it has made a mistake.

The amendments propose that no referendum could be held within four years, rather than the 10 or five specified. I am interested to hear the Minister’s reasoning because, given all the emphasis he has placed on getting the model right and providing local choice and diversity, I would have thought that he would want to facilitate rather than obstruct an opportunity to correct an error—learning from the Stoke-on-Trent example, let us say.

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Phil Woolas (Minister of State (Local Government & Community Cohesion), Department for Communities and Local Government; Oldham East and Saddleworth, Labour)

I repeat my earlier point about the Stoke-on-Trent experience: Stoke-on-Trent that chose that model and now wants to move away from it. It was not imposed upon Stoke by the Government, nor is it being taken away against the will of the people of Stoke-on-Trent. That is the consequence of devolution, and one must live with it.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the clause extends the period within which no more than one referendum can be held from five to 10 years for authorities in England. That change will provide increased stability for executive arrangements and prevent see-sawing between different  leadership models. He referred to situations in some councils around the country.

There is a difference between the provisions for England and Wales is because of powers that are given to Wales in clauses that we shall debate later. I expect that, as a consequence of those powers being given, the Welsh limit will change to 10 years, but it would be premature on the one hand to devolve powers to Wales and on the other to dictate what the period should be. This is another champagne moment, although the hon. Gentleman looks as though he is more interested in a red wine moment.

It is right that people should have the opportunity to express their views on and influence their council’s leadership. As I said earlier, communities will still be able to petition for a referendum for an elected mayor, and we are extending that provision to directly elected executives. Local people will also have an opportunity to make their views known whenever a council proposes to change its executive arrangements.

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Andrew Stunell (Shadow Secretary of State for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Communities and Local Government), Department for Communities and Local Government; Hazel Grove, Liberal Democrat)

I have understood the Minister to be saying that in the meantime, before the 10 years are up, a petition could be launched by local residents. Is he saying that, in that case, the provision would not have effect or would be superseded, or is he saying that the petition would lie on the Table until the 10 years were up?

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Phil Woolas (Minister of State (Local Government & Community Cohesion), Department for Communities and Local Government; Oldham East and Saddleworth, Labour)

Let me finish my point, because the situation will become clear and it will save the Committee time.

After earlier debates, Opposition Members should be in no doubt that in order to plan for and deliver the strategies that we all want, the Government believe that leadership needs to be strong and accountable. It is the latter of those criteria that the amendment would affect. It would mean that a council’s executive arrangements could be changed by referendum every four years, which would mean that every four-year term of office could be subject to a referendum on executive arrangements. If a referendum supported change, the executive would of course be undermined. The amendment would make that a possibility in every consecutive term of office. The turbulence caused by that situation would not be conducive to enabling councillors to improve their communities. In fact, it would be highly disruptive. That is why we propose to revise the provision under the Local Government Act 2000 to extend the minimum period between referendums from five to 10 years in England to give new executive arrangements the time they need to bed down and then to provide the stronger leadership that will benefit their area. To repeat my point on Wales, we propose no change to the five-year moratorium, as the Welsh Assembly has expressed no desire as yet to change it. Of course, the decisions of the Assembly anticipate our deliberations on the enabling powers contained in the Bill.

I understand the intention behind the amendments. The hon. Member for Hazel Grove wants further to increase people’s abilities to change their council’s executive arrangements. However, there is a balance to be struck between providing opportunities for communities to express their views and the stability that provides the foundations for that better and  stronger leadership. I believe that we have struck the right balance. The petitions that are held now would, of course, lead to a referendum. Until the Bill is enacted, the five-year moratorium applies. After the enactment, the 10-year moratorium will apply to provide the stability that I have talked about.

I repeat the policy that I expressed before: the route by which an executive arrangement is created is the route that must be used to unpick it. In other words, the decision of a council can never overturn a decision of the people in a referendum. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman’s points.

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Andrew Stunell (Shadow Secretary of State for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Communities and Local Government), Department for Communities and Local Government; Hazel Grove, Liberal Democrat)

I must say that I found that another disappointing answer from the Minister. The Bill would double the length of time that it would take for a local community to unpick arrangements that it believed were flawed and needed to be changed. The Minister—or his successor—will come to regret that, because he will find that there will be occasions where it would be expedient for the Government to allow local communities to exercise that choice and not to be inhibited by primary legislation that puts that barrier in place. Nevertheless, I have made my point, I have heard the Minister and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 50 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 51 to 54 ordered to stand part of the Bill.