Ward Boundaries (HC 315-i)
ODPM Committee 7 Mar 2004
Evidence given by Mr Sam Younger, Chairman, and Mrs Pamela Gordon, Electoral Commissioner, Electoral Commission
Q19 Mr. David Clelland: This suggestion that somehow or other metropolitan areas can have a different formula and the assumption, I assume, that they are built-up areas does not work out every time in practice, of course, if you take an authority like Gateshead, for instance, Gateshead is as much rural as it is urban, therefore they would suffer if the formula were aimed merely at urban areas?
Ms Gordon: Our main complaint, if I may say so, is with the legislative provisions at the moment, not with the criteria as such but with the requirement in the metropolitan areas to come up with a warding system with numbers of councillors divisible by three, which means, in practice, three members, there are none with six or nine. That requirement is an artificial one, in my opinion, because of exactly this position, that many of the metropolitan areas include large areas of rural development and therefore some of the wards are rather artificial because of the requirement that they shall be divisible by three. I am quite sure that the Committee would favour a change in that requirement.
Q20 Mr. David Clelland: Really I was referring to your answer to Mr Bennett, which seemed to imply that different criteria apply to urban areas and a lower percentage of tolerance applies because they happen to be urban areas, but of course they are not entirely urban are they?
Ms Gordon: No, absolutely, I agree with that, but I think the answer would be to be able to deal with the rural areas in a more flexible way than we can at the moment.
Q21 Mr. David Clelland: The rural areas in the metropolitan areas?
Ms Gordon: Yes.
Q30 Mr. David Clelland: Do you think that local authorities allowed enough time for public consultation over these reviews?
Ms Gordon: That is certainly something we are looking at in our review of process. We find that we get most submissions from members of the public at what we call our Stage Three of the process, which is after we produce draft recommendations. That is quite natural, that people will respond mostly when there is something to spark their attention. That happens to be the shortest period in the process at the moment, it is only eight weeks. There are clearly some good arguments both for extending that period and possibly for us doing something more proactive in the communities, occasional meetings, facilitating further discussions, for example, with parish councils, we are looking at a range of things in the review that will seek to address the way of helping local people make a better input to the process.
Q31 Mr. David Clelland: I think certainly that is something which needs to be done. I have to say that I doubt very much whether very many people in my constituency, or in that of any other Member sitting round here, knew what was going on during the review, or a very small number of people, and even now are a bit confused as to why things have changed and how it came about. Do you do any investigation as to the quality and intensity of the consultations which local authorities carry out?
Ms Gordon: We do comment, quite often, in our final reports about the councils' consultation.
Q32 Mr. David Clelland: How do you know about the consultation?
Ms Gordon: We ask them and they tell us what they have done and sometimes we have tested things out and we know that when they say they have put information in libraries it is not always very prominent, and things like that. We comment particularly if it has been good because there are some authorities which have done extremely good consultation. I have to say that, very often, in those cases it is a much more straightforward review because they have taken into account the responses from their local communities and town and parish councils, but that does not always happen so sometimes we are not very satisfied. Again, this is something that we are looking at. Certainly what we do at the moment to advertise is fairly traditional, using local papers to advertise the review. Again, there may be possibilities that we will look at in the review to do something a bit more active ourselves.
Q33 Mr. David Clelland: What weight is given to the outcome of public consultations, at the moment?
Ms Gordon: When we get submissions we give the same weight to all submissions against the criteria.
Q34 Mr. David Clelland: Sorry for interrupting. You may give the same weight to all submissions against the criteria but is it not the case that you tell people who want to make a comment that they have to do so in quite some detail, with figures and statistics and history of demographic movement, and all of that sort of stuff, for which most ordinary people, even Members of Parliament, I have to say, because I had to go through this exercise myself, do not have the resources?
Ms Gordon: That will be particularly relevant at the beginning of the review and we are looking at ways in which we might extend, bring forward, some stages of the review, for example, to come to a conclusion about council size before we get into the full preparation of proposals. If we had both size and the expected number on the register then we would be able to give anyone, members of the public or anyone, those key factors before they sought to devise a proposal. That is also something we are looking at.
Q35 Mr. David Clelland: All of that, of course, has implications for resources, so how do you respond to local authorities' calls for money to carry out these reviews and these consultations?
Ms Gordon: We have to look at exactly what requirements we might be putting on them but there will also be a resource implication for the Commission itself which may be something we will have to come forward with if there is a very good justification for it. We will take account of resources in both directions as part of the review.
Mr Younger: Could I just follow up what Pamela has said, in terms of something in the early stages. It is right, by and large, that people tend to react to something when it is already on the table rather than be particularly active in thinking in advance, but I do think that area of looking at how we can best make it easy for the normal resident voter to come forward with ideas of their own is really important. It was as much a theme, I think, the last time we discussed this in this Committee, that sense that there are certain people and organisations that are in an infinitely better position to put arguments forward, backed up by statistics, and so on, than it is for others and there is real inequality there. I think something we do need to look at is whether there are things we can do to even that balance a bit. We are not going to do it by any means perfectly but I think getting something clearer at the beginning that gives people something to bite on is worthwhile. Obviously, we have got to think what is a reasonable time period in which to do a review altogether and there is a danger that if you do everything perfectly you have something stretched over such a long period that everybody has forgotten by the end of it what happened at the beginning of it, so one has got to balance those two things. I think more at the front end of the process to make it easier for people who are not necessarily well informed at the beginning to make a contribution is something we should look at.
Q36 Mr. David Clelland: Being easier with computer-aided everything, the design and everything else, I would have thought it should not be too difficult to design a program that people can play around with and change boundaries within the criteria. There is the possibility of looking at technology, for instance, to help that. Can I ask you, just finally, if all political parties have equal access to the review process?
Ms Gordon: Yes, they do. We contact all the political parties when we do the reviews.
Q37 Mr. David Clelland: Some of the major parties, but all political parties or just the parties which are represented in a particular area?
Ms Gordon: The parties represented on the authority.
Q56 Mr. David Clelland: I believe that the relationship between local councillors and their communities is extremely important, but that can be affected very much by changes in boundaries. I refer you to something I have raised before, and which is in the evidence from Gateshead Council, about the community of Dunston, which I know well and I make no apologies for raising it, it is in my constituency. This village, which, although the Council says it has been a self-contained ward since 1974, actually has been a village since the early settlements on Tyneside, was split in half by your review and half of the village was joined with another village across the green belt and the other half was joined with the conurbation of Gateshead, and I suppose you could say that the village now are looking to have six councillors instead of three. The village used to relate to their councillors. All of the councillors lived in the village and it worked extremely well. It has also changed the political complexion, of course, because the part of Whickham which Dunston was joined with has a different political complexion and it has changed that completely, so that some people in Dunston now have got councillors they do not want particularly, because they are overrun by the numbers. I think these things do have a detrimental effect. I see that, as far as community interest is concerned, this is the last of the statutory criteria which the Commission has to consider. Surely it should be higher up the list than last?
Mr Younger: I think it is fair to say that, as far as we are concerned, the order in which the criteria are written does not denote one being more important than another, we have got three to balance against each other. I think the key thing within that has been, and I think it has been the tenor of what comes through in sessions such as this and a previous one we had with the Committee, whether somewhere in the statutory criteria or in the guidance a greater weight ought to be being given than has been given in the past to the issues of community identity, difficult to define as some of those are. Certainly I think we have found, when the Commissioners came in on this relatively late in the process, because this came over to the Electoral Commission in April 2002, we have always felt sensitive to those community identity arguments coming in at the final representation phase to mediate the strict equality. I still think that the equality is probably procedurally the right starting point, but it seems to me that there is a question, it is something which I know that Mr O'Brien from this Committee put forward very strongly a couple of years ago, saying actually community identity should be enshrined perhaps as the key criterion. If it were to be, we would need to have some guidance on what, as a result, might then be unacceptable levels of inequality, in terms of representation.
Mr. David Clelland: I accept that, and again this comes back, I suppose, to the question of how much does the pressure on your time influence how much detailed examination is done of possible alternatives. In terms of this particular case, the local authority came up with a plan which, because of, they say, the stringent criteria to which they had to work, split the community of Dunston and you came up with an alternative plan, so obviously there is more than one which again would split the community of Dunston. There does not seem to be enough time to explore other possibilities. This impacts also on the last question which came up, about parliamentary boundaries and how these all fit together, because I know, at the moment, these are done in separate exercises. The subsequent parliamentary review, which has just taken place in Tyne and Weir, has meant that one half of Dunston now is in one constituency and the other half of Dunston is in another and, for the first time in the history of parliamentary democracy, Dunston now is two separate constituencies. Some people might think that is not very important but the people who live in Dunston think it is very important.
Andrew Bennett: You have got two MPs.
Q57 Mr. David Clelland: You might think that is an advantage, but it is all to do with the cohesiveness that we are seeing?
Ms Gordon: I would like to say that the Committee certainly would have great sympathy with those communities which sometimes inevitably we find have to be split; sometimes it is because we have to look at the whole area and there are knock-on effects by putting a particular grouping together. I have to say that, in the case of Dunston and Gateshead, I am fairly convinced that it is because of the requirement for the three members in the metropolitan area. I do not know the population, the electorate, of Dunston, but had we been able to look as we were with the outskirts of London, where there was not that requirement but a very similar pattern, we were able to agree a single-member ward in a far, urban part of Greater London. We could not do that for Dunston or similar areas on the fringe of metropolitan areas.
Q58 Mr. David Clelland: I hear what you are saying. I do not accept that there was not another way of doing it, because actually I submitted a plan myself to show how it could be done, but because it did not meet your stringent criteria as to numbers and history and everything else it tended to get dismissed, as opposed to the local authority submission because they have a whole planning department working for them?
Mr Younger: If I may add, I think this does also go back to the issue you were talking about before, about clearing some of the ground and making some of the ground rules clearer early in the process. I think some of the examples that I have had, that I think collectively we have had most difficulty with are, when you get propositions in, in the first instance, some of them quite well thought out but which include different council sizes, and then you have got a very telescoped period, if you once then fix on a council size, those who put in a proposition based on a different council size then are struggling to catch up to put in a proposition that makes sense with a different size. I think some of that front-loading of detail is actually an assumption and something which we do need to look at.
Q69 Mr. David Clelland: When you were considering this recommendation, did you consider the relationship between councillors and their electorate, because the councillors have to stand for election every year and that keeps them a lot closer to what is going on and a lot more keen to ensure that they are pleasing the electorate than if they had to stand only once every four years, when you tend to get a lot of activity in the last year, in terms of the community, but not much in the previous years?
Mr Younger: That was one of the dimensions of the argument put on that side of the equation. On the other was the clarity of having a whole council election every four years, the ability to be strategic, fitting in with other forms of election and the fact that, as I think Pamela said earlier, on the inequality, there being some environments where some people are voting three years out of four and others are voting only one year out of four, or in some cases two years out of four.
Q70 Mr. David Clelland: Would it be impossible to put that right? Why should we not have different systems for different kinds of local authorities? Why have they all got to be the same?
Mr Younger: They were set out there as we had them at the time. I think our sense was that you could turn it round and say, on something that is fairly fundamental, in terms of elections, why would there be a presumption that it would be different in all sorts of different places? There is evidence that there is confusion in the electorate, and there is also some research we have done that there was confusion in the electorate, when you have elections that are not whole council elections, and there is clarity but there is better effect on turnout and engagement. I think a lot of argumentation, but it varied, was that it was not all on one side but the arguments which came to us suggested there was the better ability of a council strategically to get on with the job and deliver and then be made accountable with the right elections every four years.
Q71 Mr. David Clelland: That might apply if all local authorities were the same, that they were all unitary authorities, for instance, but they are not, are they, they are all different? If they were all unitary authorities you could argue that there should be a uniform system of elections, but when the local authorities themselves are different and even have different functions, why should the electoral processes not be different?
Mr Younger: I think the evidence that we came up with was, in terms of the confusion for voters and equality for every voter, that all-out elections was a better system, but we acknowledged in the report that there are arguments on both sides, and clearly, when we were talking to local councils, by and large, councils tended to defend or promote the way they were used to, which suited them. I respect that but think what we were asked to do was come up with options to simplify the system and if you are going to simplify the system it seemed to us that going to all-out elections across the board was the best way.
Mr. David Clelland: A simpler way but not necessarily a better way, possibly.
Q72 Mr Page: In my constituency I have got either the best or the worst of both worlds, because I have one council doing it every four years and one council doing it every year. Have you any evidence that there is voter fatigue when you have the election every year?
Mr Younger: I think the evidence that we came up with was that there was voter confusion, certainly confusion, when you had elections more often, insofar as people, very often, in the research, were not sure what they were voting for and when. The turnout evidence, as I remember it, is not statistically a very large difference but, nevertheless, evidence that all-out elections do drive better participation, and the implication of that would be that having too many elections does give you voter fatigue.
Q73 Mr. David Clelland: Do you have statistics to demonstrate this point? I have to say that, in the local authority I live in and have represented for some time, we have had all-out elections for as long as I can remember and I do not perceive any great confusion in the minds of the electorate as to what is going on, they seem to be quite clear about what is happening. In fact, it happens so ordinarily that they are even more clear than perhaps they might be if it happened only once every four years?
Mr Younger: We do have the figures from the research, and certainly, if you have not got them now, we can give you access to them.
This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.
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