John Stevenson (Carlisle) (Con): I am delighted to speak in this important debate, as aside from the economy, devolution is one of the great domestic issues of our time. We have seen changes in Scotland and Wales driven by a devolutionary agenda, and now England too will be part of this overdue reform. The Bill presents this country with a huge opportunity to rebalance the relationship between local and central Government and, indeed, to improve it, but it is also an opportunity to rebalance our country, not just politically but economically. I therefore fully support the Bill’s Second Reading.
In many ways, this Bill is a clever one—an enabling Bill that allows for a great deal of flexibility and permits room for innovation. Both those freedoms are very welcome as we create an environment for bespoke deals that will give responsibilities and powers to different parts of our country and, most importantly, provide the opportunity for different cities, counties and districts to develop and grow in their own way and on their own terms.
One of the Bill’s central themes is the concept of elected mayors, of which I have been a long-standing supporter. In my perfect world, I would like to see them as a default setting for all councils. They are a modern, more accountable and more transparent form of local government. They provide visible leadership and responsibility, and a vehicle for real change in our cities and counties. One need only look at London to see the benefits that this visibility and leadership can bring to a place. I therefore continue to support the Minister in his endeavours towards the advancement of elected mayors, an idea that I hope will be of particular benefit to the north of the country.
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I understand the Government’s view that the Bill will bring about evolution not revolution, and that central Government will not be imposing their will on local government. I do not fully agree with that. I do accept, though, that it is vital that the Bill works with the grain of the people.
I take issue with the Government on three parts of the Bill, the most important of which is clause 16(3), which, in effect, gives any council, however bloody-minded, parochial or underperforming, a full veto on what could otherwise be a well-supported and essential proposal for reform. It gives the few—small-minded politicians—the power to prevent progress for the many.
I take Cumbria as an example. It is a county with just under half a million people, but with seven separate councils and over 380 councillors. In Cumbria, it is accepted across the political parties and by the business community, the LEP, the health sector and, most importantly, the wider public that the current structure is not working and is holding our county back. Cumbria, it is recognised by all, needs fewer councils and fewer councillors. It needs unitary governance and everyone in Cumbria knows it. However, under the Bill as drafted, just one of those seven councils can veto proposals for change and the entire process, against the will of the majority, would be scuppered. I therefore ask Ministers to review that clause, not with the intention of allowing central Government to impose themselves, but to ensure that where there is overwhelming support for reform among local communities they cannot be held to ransom by a minority.
My other concerns are clauses 20 and 21. On clause 20, it is understandable to consider a reduction in the age required to vote, but this must be a policy for all elections or for none. In addition, thought must be given as to whether it would also mean that 16 and 17-year-olds could stand for election. I therefore ask the Government to give the clause further consideration. Consistency has to be—
Alison Thewliss: During the debates on the European Union Referendum Bill, much was said about the voting age and when young people should get involved. Lots of people said then that that was not the time—why is now not the time?
John Stevenson: I am not making a comment as to the merits of the case. I am merely suggesting that if it is to be introduced, it should be consistent across all elections. I ask the Government to consider that further.
As for clause 21, I would be very reluctant to see such a change removing the moratorium on areas that have chosen directly elected mayors. As I intimated earlier, I would like the position of elected mayor to be encouraged and expanded further. Indeed, I encourage the Government to consider making it easier for local communities to trigger a referendum to have an elected mayor by reducing the threshold required for a petition from 5% to 1%. That would clearly demonstrate the Government’s commitment to elected mayors and to the principle of allowing local areas to determine their own future.
I remain fully supportive of the Bill and its intentions, and I applaud Ministers for bringing about this long-overdue legislation. However, I hope that these small changes are considered in Committee or on Report to ensure that local communities, particularly the people of Cumbria and Carlisle whom I represent, are able to take full advantage of this important policy.