Amendment 157

Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill - Committee (5th Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 15 March 2023.

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Baroness Pinnock:

Moved by Baroness Pinnock

157: After Clause 70, insert the following new Clause—“Local authorities to be allowed to choose their own voting system(1) The Secretary of State must by regulations provide that local authorities may choose the voting system used for local elections in their areas.(2) When determining whether to seek to introduce a new voting system a local authority must have regard to the benefits of reinvigorating local democracy in its area.(3) Regulations under this section must provide that local authorities may choose to elect councillors—(a) by thirds, or(b) on an all-out basis.(4) Regulations under this section must provide that local authorities may choose to elect councillors using—(a) first-past-the-post;(b) alternative vote;(c) supplementary vote;(d) single transferable vote;(e) the additional member system;(f) any other system that may be prescribed in the regulations.(5) Regulations under this section may make provision about— (a) how a local authority may go about seeking to change its voting system,(b) the decision-making process for such a change,(c) consultation, and(d) requirements relating to approval by the local electorate.”Member's explanatory statementThis new Clause would enable local authorities to choose what voting system they use for local elections.

Photo of Baroness Pinnock Baroness Pinnock Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, it is by pure chance that this debate follows so neatly after the one we have just had about fiscal devolution and fiscal powers for devolved authorities. Unless we turbocharge our local democracy—and there is much in the Bill that takes powers away from local democracy—we will still be in the realm of “Westminster knows best” and “Westminster holds all the strings”, and we will simply become a subset of Westminster decision-making. Amendment 157 in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Harris is all about improving the local democracy available to local councils and elected mayors.

I start by referring back to the long debates this House had on voter ID. To those of us who were suggesting that it might not be the best idea, the Government’s argument all along—in some cases, their only argument—was that it had worked in Northern Ireland for many years, and if it worked there it will work here. I want to apply that principle to this amendment.

The voting systems for local government in Northern Ireland are not first past the post but single transferable vote. If it works in Northern Ireland, as it has for many years, it can work here. But single transferable vote is not the only method of improving our local democracy and making sure that more voices are elected from more parts of our communities to take part in local decision-making. I will briefly go through some of the other systems and show the Committee how these are already in use in different parts of the country.

We will start with the additional member system. It is used for elections of the Scottish Parliament, the Senedd and the London Assembly. This is a mixed system—some are elected by first past the post and others from a list system—but the outcome is more proportional to the votes as expressed by the electorate. So we already have an additional member system, not first past the post, in big elections in this country, and it works.

The second method is single transferable vote, as I have already described. It is a simple preferential voting system, just using a ranked system of one, two, three. It is used in Northern Ireland local government and the Assembly, and in Scottish local government elections. It works there; why can we not use it in English local council elections?

The third option is the alternative vote, which again ranks candidates, and this more proportional system is used in this very House to elect hereditaries if there is a vacancy. If there is more than one vacancy for hereditary Peers, the single transferable vote system is used. If it is good enough here, surely it can be good enough for local council elections in England. Let us be more like Northern Ireland.

The next system that could be adopted is the supplementary vote. Prior to its recent abolition, it was used to elect Mayors of London, the directly elected mayors in combined authorities, and police and crime commissioners. Very simply, it gives you two votes and two columns, and you can just stick your cross in one of each.

Those are all the systems that we can use in multiple ways. Mature democracies across the world seek to elect representatives in proportion to the expressed views of their electors. I do not like using this comparison, but I remind the Committee that the only other country that uses first past the post is Belarus, with which I am not sure we want to be aligned too much.

Democracy, and especially local democracy, works best when a range of views are heard. That is why all but a minority of democracies use some form of proportional voting system—except England, the home of democracy. The result could be the end of one-party councils or those with very large majorities; I include Liberal Democrat large-majority councils in this too. It is not healthy not to have different voices being heard when local councils make decisions.

Finally, the amendment proposes that local authorities are able to choose a different voting system. Let us see them as local pilots, and see if they work—a chance to understand the impact of such a change. I return to my starting point. Northern Ireland is promoted as the standard for voter ID. The amendment proposes that Northern Ireland be seen as a standard for local government elections, along with Wales and Scotland. If levelling up is to be a reality, and in order to narrow growing inequalities, then one of the best ways we can do that is to get more voices around the table, bring forth ideas and innovation, and drive change for everybody’s sake. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Harris of Richmond Baroness Harris of Richmond Liberal Democrat

I agree with everything that my noble friend Lady Pinnock has just said. I put my name to her amendment because in my rapidly disappearing district council of Richmondshire a motion was almost unanimously agreed to support a system of voting proportionately. It was proposed and seconded by two of my colleagues on that council, Councillors Richard Good and Clive World. It is almost unheard of to have a council in Richmondshire vote together on an issue as contentious as this, so I was delighted when they agreed to forward a letter to the Government requesting a move away from the first past the post system to a fairer and more representative way of voting.

As it was, only two Conservative councillors voted against the motion. The motion they presented was as follows:

“First Past the Post (FPTP) originated when land-owning aristocrats dominated parliament and voting was restricted to property-owning men … In Europe”,

as we have heard,

“only the UK and authoritarian Belarus still use archaic single-round FPTP for general elections. Meanwhile, internationally, Proportional Representation (PR) is used to elect parliaments in more than 80 countries. Those countries tend to be more equal, freer and greener … PR ensures all votes count, have equal value, and those seats won match votes cast. Under PR, MPs and Parliaments better reflect the age, gender and protected characteristics of local communities and the nation. MPs better reflecting their communities leads to improved decision-making, wider participation and increased levels of ownership of decisions taken … PR would also end minority rule. In 2019, 43.6% of the vote produced a government with 56.2% of the seats and 100% of the power. PR also prevents ‘wrong winner’ elections such as occurred in 1951 and February 1974 … PR is already used to elect the parliaments and assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. So why not Westminster? … Council therefore resolves to write to H.M. Government calling for a change in our outdated electoral laws to enable Proportional Representation to be used for general, local and mayoral elections.”

I could not have put it any better myself. I fully support my noble friend’s amendment and hope that the Government will consider it seriously before Report.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baronesses, Lady Pinnock and Lady Harris of Richmond. I will really restrain myself and not make general comments about PR but speak only about a specific element of democracy.

I am tempted to make a one-sentence contribution, which is, “Democracy: it would be a good idea, wouldn’t it, if we had it?” We are talking about a local area deciding how to elect its own representatives. The amendment does not say, “You have to have proportional representation —the system that we know means that the number of councillors matches the number of votes and that the council or the Parliament reflects the views of the people, and that we know produces a better quality of governance.” It does not say any of those things. It merely says that each local area should be able to decide the system under which it governs itself.

Of course, I have to make some reference to the better quality of governance which is demonstrably the result of proportional electoral systems, and indeed to look at the other side of this, which is what has just been happening in Plymouth City Council, where a Tory council has gone out in the middle of the night to cut down more than 100 mature trees in the city centre, despite significant local resistance. That, of course, is a replay; they seem not to have learned at all from what happened a few years ago in Sheffield, where a Labour council, again in a one party state-type set-up, did the same thing, sneaking around the streets in the early hours of the morning to try to ensure that it could cut down trees against the will of residents. So we have there a case study, which is not even slanted in any particular political direction, of our current system not working.

Again, I stress that the amendment does not say that it will force the change on anyone; it simply says that people should be able to decide for themselves. In the previous group of amendments, we focused on the lack of power in local government because of its lack of resources. Well, take back control: that was crucial and remains a very strong, passionate feeling among the British people. This amendment gives a chance to take back control at the local level, which is clearly urgently needed.

Photo of Lord Foster of Bath Lord Foster of Bath Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I will make a brief contribution because tonight, in East Suffolk Council, where I now have the great privilege of living, there is to be a debate on the very subject of democracy at local government level. I have just received a copy of the speech that will be given by David Beavan, the councillor for Southwold ward. He will say—he has not yet said it—the following:

The Conservative party won the last election with 38% of the vote, but this gave them an overwhelming majority with 71% of the councillors. We are not allowed to debate the unfair first past the post system but we can debate ways to mitigate it so that the silent majority of non-Conservative voters are represented … This administration used its majority as a sledge hammer to close down debate in this council and to pack every committee and outside body with their own … We believe there is a better way to run this council … Where all members of every party have an opportunity to work for East Suffolk … Where debate is open and considered not predetermined by a party political whip … Where opposition members are given a fair chance to make their point in meetings … Where officers are not dragged into petty party politics … Above all we need a Scrutiny committee that is not directed by the administration. An opposition chair would ensure this independence … East Suffolk today faces big challenges. We need to work together as a community and a council. We should set aside party politics after the election and knuckle down to govern fairly for all of East Suffolk.”

I entirely agree with him, and I note that in an earlier discussion on Monday the noble Earl the Minister said clearly that this Bill is all about getting rid of “central diktat” and giving local people an opportunity to have a say. This amendment from my noble friend gives an opportunity to do that. I hope it will be supported by the Government.

Photo of Lord Stunell Lord Stunell Liberal Democrat

My Lords, we have had a short debate and it will be very interesting to see how the Government respond to it. I wait in hope that something can be done, as my noble friend said in moving this amendment, to turbocharge local democracy. There is no doubt that it needs turbocharging: we see elements of its alienation every day of the week. We are moving closer and closer not to better local democracy, but to perhaps better but certainly more intense local administration. I have spoken on that already today. My noble friend made the extremely powerful point, and certainly a very good debating point, that if ID cards are good enough for Northern Ireland, surely a proportional voting system is good enough for England. I hope the Government have a really plausible reason for not accepting that argument.

My noble friend Lady Harris has accurately reported, I am sure, the views of Richmondshire District Council—incidentally, it is in North Yorkshire, which we were of course discussing earlier today—and the value of every vote being equal and the opportunities for regeneration that flow from that. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, drew our attention to some examples of bad practice and pointed out the damaging impacts of single-party rule. Since we certainly think it is inappropriate, to say the least, in North Korea, it ought to be inappropriate in our town halls in England as well. Restoring that element of local choice and broader representation ought surely to be one of the objectives of this levelling-up Bill.

My noble friend Lord Foster of Bath drew attention to the not untypical situation with East Suffolk Council whereby a party with less than 40% of the vote finishes up with over 70% of the representation and therefore of the decision-making. We had debates earlier about the Government’s intention, set out clearly in the Bill, to suspend the operation of proportionality in local authorities in the formation of CCAs. I hope the Government Front Bench will take note of some of the malign consequences that can arise when proportionality is not adhered to. Of course, in terms of representation, a sense of alienation can grow in voters, and in non-voters but electors, who repeatedly say, “It’s not worth voting because they always get in”. That happens time and again, particularly in local government. Surely, we have to make sure that the voices of the silent ones—the voices being suppressed by that system—are in fact heard.

I want to hear the Government say, “There are things about this we do not like; we do not really want anything other than first past the post; but we do recognise that local communities, local councils, should have the right to choose for themselves the voting system they use”. My noble friend has set out in considerable detail a very compelling case: we are not suggesting throwing the whole system up in the air, but simply using systems already in operation in various parts of the United Kingdom, including in England.

Photo of Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Harris, Lady Pinnock and Lady Bennett, and the noble Lords, Lord Foster and Lord Stunell. It has been a very interesting discussion. The arguments I have heard articulated many times over the years on voting methods have been rehearsed with great conviction this afternoon.

I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Pinnock and Lady Harris, for tabling their amendment, which gets to the heart of the level of autonomy and devolution the Government wish to achieve through the Bill. Proposed new subsections (1) and (2) in their amendment set out the intention that local authorities be able to choose for themselves the voting system that will reinvigorate local democracy in their area. I am sure that no one would disagree with that aim, or even say that the methods suggested may not achieve it; but I am also sure that noble Lords would agree that changing the voting system by itself would likely only partially achieve that aim, if at all. If it is accompanied by greater financial freedoms and flexibilities, as we have already discussed, and wider powers for councillors to act in the interest of their communities—and if that, in turn, built confidence and engagement—that would create the kind of holistic change we all want to see. I am sure that that is the intention, as I am very conscious of the other contributions the noble Baronesses, Lady Pinnock and Lady Harris, have made during the debates so far. No doubt they will make more such contributions.

Regarding proposed new subsection (3), having only recently been through the local government boundary commission process, I know that it is for local authorities to determine whether they wish to carry out elections by thirds or on an all-out basis. I hope that option will also exist for authorities which gather together in CCAs, and that, as the CCA is set up, it is able to determine for itself the sequence of elections.

Proposed new subsection (4) refers to the voting method used. I have listened with great interest to the debate and the very good points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, on the voting systems of the devolved Administrations. I am interested to know whether and how a CCA would determine the voting method across, say, 10 or 12 constituent member authorities. I have a slight concern that, if the CCA is required to do that as part of the process of formation, it might just slow things down a bit while the CCA and the constituent local authorities debate the relative merits of alternative voting systems, many of which I have heard about over the years. I dare say that there may be some political preferences for one system over another. Proposed new subsection (5), as we see it, contains enabling provisions for the proposed new clause.

So while we could argue the relative merits of part of this amendment, it is again disappointing that, in setting out the Bill, we could not be more ambitious in addressing issues that are critical to overall devolution. It is rather a shame and a missed opportunity that the Bill did not include those vital issues.

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities) 6:45, 15 March 2023

My Lords, Amendment 157, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, seeks to enable each local authority to choose its own voting system. In doing so, the

“local authority must have regard to the benefits of reinvigorating local democracy in its area.”

We agree that a vigorous local democracy is vital; however, we take a different view as to how this will be best provided for.

First, we are clear on the merits of first past the post as a robust and secure way of electing representatives. It is well understood by voters and provides for strong, clear local accountability. It ensures a clear link between elected representatives and those who vote for them, in a manner that other voting systems may not. For those reasons, we have provided that, from this May’s elections, first past the post will also apply in voting for local authority and combined authority elected mayors, and for police and crime commissioners.

Secondly, we do not believe it would be right for the voting system to be a matter of local choice for particular councils. It is important that the voting system be clearly understood by electors and that they have confidence in it. Having different systems for neighbouring areas risks confusing electors, and any such confusion risks weakening public confidence in the electoral process.

A council being able to choose its voting system would also risk political manipulation. For example, the current controlling group on a council could seek to choose a system that it believes would favour it. While I accept that there could be various safeguards to mitigate that risk, I do not consider that it could be entirely removed.

Elections are the foundations of local democracy, which is central to our values and our being a free society; we should protect and nurture it. I recognise that all noble Lords in this Committee share that view, but I am afraid that what this amendment envisages would in practice be the kind of tinkering with the foundations of local democracy that I am clear we should avoid.

Finally, there are already relevant provisions in place under the local government and public health Act 2007 which enable district councils to change their scheme of elections. Those councils electing by thirds, where a third of council seats are up for re-election in each of three out of every four years, can move to whole-council elections, where all council seats are re-elected at once, every four years, and some councils currently holding whole-council elections, which formerly elected by thirds, can resolve to revert to electing by thirds.

Perhaps more importantly, experience has shown the merits of whole-council elections: facilitating stable, strategic local leadership, and delivering a clear programme for which the council can be held to account by the electorate. We encourage those councils still not holding whole-council elections to consider using the powers which Parliament has given them to switch to such elections. We would not wish to see councils which have not previously done so moving to elections by thirds.

Before I finish, I will just remind noble Lords that we had a referendum on changing first past the post in 2011, and 67.9% of the population voted against any change.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

Would the Minister acknowledge that that was not giving the public the choice of a proportional representation voting system, where the seats would match votes?

Photo of Baroness Scott of Bybrook Baroness Scott of Bybrook Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities)

But it was about a change in the type of election and there was a very clear result against it. I consider that to be a very clear result in support of first past the post.

Therefore, although I appreciate the intentions behind this amendment, for all of those reasons I hope I have said enough to enable the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, to withdraw her Amendment 157.

Photo of Baroness Pinnock Baroness Pinnock Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate so that we can explore the issue, because it is a sort of twin part of fiscal devolution. This is not an arcane debate for election geeks; it is really important if we are going to renew our local democracy. The amendment is not asking very much; it is simply asking for local authorities to be allowed—there is an example of control from Whitehall—to choose their own voting system.

My noble friend Lord Stunell raised two important issues about first past the post. If electors feel that the outcome of an election is a foregone conclusion, they do not bother to vote. You can see that in turnouts across the country. It leads to apathy and cynicism, which are the last emotions that we need to see in our voters when we know that we need to reinvigorate our local democracy. Change is going to be important if we are going to narrow inequalities, which is what this levelling-up Bill should be all about. However, change can be divisive, so if you have a broader representation of views and hear more voices, you have a better chance of drawing people together to agree to a change—not cutting down trees in the middle of the night, which is apparently what happened in Tory-run Plymouth council.

I will just say one or two things about the response from the Minister. I thank her for replying and claiming that first past the post is the only one that allows the link with electors. So what are the Government doing then allowing Northern Ireland to use STV, Scotland to use STV for its local elections and Wales to use different systems? If it is so bad and does not make a link, what is going on here? Local government is powerful in those countries, and we need to make it powerful here.

My last point is that the Minister, if I heard her right, said that if we introduce a system where local authorities can choose which voting system they wish to use, the current political makeup of a council would choose a system that suited them. But the whole point of a more proportional system is that you cannot do that. It is up to the voters to choose. Putting the power in the hands of the voters seems a jolly good idea. With that, I look forward to trying to change the Minister’s mind and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 157 withdrawn.