Queen’s Speech, Local Government Finance and Elections

May 11th, 2012

QUEEN’S SPEECH

Bills already introduced pursuant to the Queen’s Speech on 9 May 2012 include Local Government Finance Bill and Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, both accompanied by Explanatory Notes, which in each case address ECHR compatibility.

LOCAL GOVERNMENT FINANCE

Most of the Local Government Finance Bill applies only in relation to England.

The Bill will introduce a rates retention scheme, enabling local authorities to retain a proportion of the business rates generated in their area.  The Secretary of State (“the SoS”) will be required to prepare a local government finance report each year, which sets out the central and local share percentages of non-domestic rates. It will also set out which payments are required to be made by billing authorities and major precepting authorities (“relevant authorities”) to the SoS, into the main non-domestic rating account, and which payments are required to be made by the SoS to relevant authorities, from the main non-domestic rating account. The SoS will also be required to establish a levy account and make regulations as to whether payments are required from any relevant authority. Payments may be made from the levy account for “safety net authorities” in accordance with regulations to be made by the SoS. The SoS may also make regulations as to transitional protection payments for authorities, to take account of transitional relief. Billing authorities will also be required to make payments to major precepting authorities, under regulations to be made by the SoS.  A number of relevant authorities may also be designated as a pool of authorities, which will then be treated for most purposes of the new provisions as a single authority. The SoS may designate certain areas of England and provide through regulations that a proportion of the rates are to be retained by billing authorities in those areas. Similarly, the SoS may also designate certain classes of hereditament and provide that rates are to be retained by billing authorities whose area includes the designated class.

The Bill also contains provisions, in the context of abolition of council tax benefit, with respect to council tax and council tax reduction schemes and discounts.  The Bill includes powers for the SoS to make requirements about the schemes which local authorities must make by 31 January 2013 relating to the financial year beginning on 1 April 2013. A scheme must set out the classes of person who are entitled to a reduction, the reductions which are to apply to those classes and the procedure by which a person may apply for a reduction. The SoS has power to prescribe classes of persons which must be included in a scheme and the reductions which must apply to them.  A billing authority must consult before making a scheme and each financial year it must consider whether to revise or to replace its scheme. The SoS has power to make provision for the procedure for preparing a scheme or a revision to a scheme.

ELECTIONS

The Electoral Registration and Administration Bill extends to both England and Wales.

Part 1 of the Bill relates to Individual Electoral Registration.  The provisions will require that each elector must apply individually to be registered to vote after the transition to the new system; make transitional arrangements over two years, including using data matching to verify entries, and providing for the ‘carry forward’ of electors who are not automatically verified and fail to register under the new system in the first year, so that they remain on the first register published under the new system (likely to be the register used for the 2015 general election); create a legislative framework to allow alternative channels for registration, such as online registration, to be offered; provide for the use of data matching to verify applications, check existing entries in registers and find individuals who do not currently appear on the register; make provision for an annual canvass which is compatible with the new registration system and provide a power to amend or abolish the annual canvass in future, subject to a report by the Electoral Commission and an order requiring the approval by a resolution of each House of Parliament; ensure that all those wishing to vote by post or proxy will need to be registered under the new registration system to utilise these voting methods after the first annual canvass under the new system; and introduce a civil penalty for those who fail to make an application when required to do so by an Electoral Registration Officer (“ERO”).

The Bill also includes provisions in Part 2 in relation to the administration and conduct of elections.  The clauses relating to the administration and conduct of elections include provisions to allow Police Community Support Officers to enter polling stations (as police constables can currently); to remove the automatic postponement of parish and community council elections in England and Wales that currently occurs when a Parliamentary or European Parliamentary general election falls on the ordinary day for local government elections; to enable regulations to be made to place EROs under a duty to give notifications about rejected postal votes, and specify the circumstances where this duty arises; and to provide that the SoS may, upon a recommendation from the Electoral Commission, withhold or reduce a Returning Officer’s fee for reasons of poor performance.

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