Eric Pickles had an excellent piece in the Guardian website’s Comment is Free section on Tuesday. Mr Pickles discusses his continued push for freeing local government from red tape. There is no doubt that this campaign has been one of the most exciting in the Coalition Government and we are seeing
progress even only eight weeks after the election.
Mr. Pickles states quite clearly that, “…we're going to scrap the cap on council tax. But instead, there'll be local referendums so people can decide for themselves if their council tax is too high.”
Yesterday Nick Clegg announced that he is putting forth legislation for a referendum on AV and today Eric Pickles is discussing local referendums to decide local issues. Both are gigantic steps forward in the democratic process in this country, but technically neither local or nation-wide publically created referendums are legal yet in the United Kingdom. And until new legislation is passed, the referendums the UK has had are not legally binding.
According to the Electoral Commission only nine nationwide or UK wide referendums have taken place. Additionally, thirty-five local referendums on whether the local community wanted a directly elected mayor or not have taken place. Of those referendums, twenty-three communities voted no to having a directly elected mayor. There have been informal community referendums as well, but only for reaching a general consensus on local issues, not to create a new law or overturn an old one.
The Local Government Act of 1972 apparently holds a little known bit of legislation which would allow for an informal referendum to be held during a parish meeting as long as the minimum number of voters
present is met. Closer reading of this legislation would prompt anyone to see that the process described is more like a caucus than an actual referendum.
I have described all of this in order to come to one specific point: the UK has never had a referendum that wasn’t government planned. So while Mr. Clegg and Mr. Pickles are right to state that they want referendums at both national and local levels, but they just might be implying that they want the kind of referendums created by the government – at either level of that government.
The Coalition Government’s programme put forth two ideas on referenda. First, “…any petition that secures 100,000 signatures will be eligible for a formal debate in Parliament,” and second, “We will give residents the power to instigate local referendums on any local issue.” So let’s hurry up and get this legislation written and passed as law in the UK. Until that happens, referendums created by the government – either state or local government – can’t be legitimate in the eyes of the voting public.