Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 420-439)



Mrs Dunwoody

  420. Could you tell us since we ratified whether any other country has either had an adverse report or a good report in relation to their performance in local government?
  (Ms Kitchin) I am not able to help you.

  421. So your legal advice told you that this was a very important thing to put in, but it did not tell you how it had been used or how effective it was?
  (Mr Reed) I think prior to 1997 there was a lot of concern from within political parties, and from the Labour Party then in Opposition, that the Government was one of the few countries in the whole of Europe which had not signed up to the Charter and it was included in a manifesto—

  422. With respect, that was not the question I asked. You told us you had legal advice and I would have thought that one of the things you asked when you used this kind of advice to prepare your evidence is how effective has it been, how often has it been used and where is this Government manifestly in breach. I have no doubt with the principle that you are enunciating, but it just seems to me that you are coming at it from such a slanted angle when the way we have seen in this country is to amend inadequate legislation.
  (Mr Reed) I think that is what we are asking you to do.

  423. No, I do not think that is what you are asking us to do. You are asking us to make a statement that it is not working very well as that is exactly what elected Members do.
  (Mr Reed) The preamble was one aspect to it, but that is to be included in the Bill. That is the suggestion.

Mr O'Brien

  424. But the Local Government Information Unit say that the Bill will implement the key elements of the Government's programme, so the change of relationship between central and local government, and that is referred to in the European Charter of Local Self-Government, so the LGIU or the Local Government Information Unit do admit that the Bill will implement the key elements of the European Charter of Local Self-Government. If it is doing that, then what do you want?
  (Ms Kitchin) I think there are two elements in answer to your question. The first is that the statement would not in fact add anything to the White Paper. It would confirm the position in the White Paper and it would be one which was based on consensus and against which the raft of regulations, which are going to be introduced under the legislation, could be tested.

  425. But here it says that in the opinion of the LGIU, "The Bill will implement key elements of the Government's programme", referring to the European Charter of Local Self-Government. Now, if the key elements are being introduced and the Government are making that so they could, "establish a partnership for delivery of high quality local services and secure strong and responsive leadership by local government, freed from unnecessary government controls", what are you asking for?
  (Ms Newman) That paragraph you are reading, what we are saying is that is the intention of the Bill.


  426. And you do not feel that it achieves that?
  (Ms Newman) No.

  Chairman: Well, I am afraid that the Charter is not doing very well with the Committee and I think we need to move on.

Christine Russell

  427. Can I move on, Ines Newman, to comments you made briefly at the beginning where you expressed your disappointment that there is nothing really in the Bill to encourage more people to stand as local councillors.
  (Ms Newman) Absolutely.

  428. What would you like to have seen?
  (Ms Newman) As you will remember, Chapter 5 of the White Paper was about supporting councillors and was meant to be the "Green" bit of the White Paper. We have not seen the responses that have come out from that, but we put in a considerable response to that. We suggested a raft of reforms. At a very minimum, we would want to see reconsideration of the Widdecombe restrictions on local authority officers standing as members. We are not saying abolish them by any means, we are just saying reform them because we think they are unduly restrictive as they currently stand.


  429. Sorry, can you be specific? Who should be allowed to stand who is not able to stand now?
  (Ms Newman) Well, there is a salary restriction, as you are aware, and we think that needs to be reconsidered.

  430. And moved from where to where?
  (Ms Newman) I am not going to give you the details. I think what we are saying is that—

  431. You are not convincing me unless you are prepared to give me a for instance of somebody who, you think, should be moved into the category that they can actually stand.
  (Mr Reed) An architect who would be obviously way above the salary limit at the moment, who has no particular relationship with advising members or being involved in the political function as such, but is simply a high-flying and reasonably highly-paid professional, why should they be banned from political activity? It is those sorts of situations that we really do need to address.
  (Ms Newman) Unison put down an amendment to the 2000 Act which Hilary Armstrong promised to look at, and we feel it is very disappointing that, having had that commitment from her that she would be looking at that, and this is a long-term commitment from the Labour Party, that that is not in the Bill, but that is in a sense a minor issue. I think there are some more significant issues. We have been concerned for some time about the fact that pension provision only applies to executive members and it is not available for backbenchers, that childcare allowances are discretionary and not mandatory for members. We believe very strongly that an opportunity should be taken to lower the age at which people can stand for office to 18, and we would also like to see the voting age lowered to 16, but just to take it simply, if people are currently allowed to vote and they are adults at 18, why can they not stand for office?

Chris Grayling

  432. Why is it the role of the Local Government Information Unit to have a view on the voting age?
  (Ms Newman) Because one of the problems at the moment is that there is, I think as you are aware, a declining turn-out of young people to vote at elections. The average age of councillors is rising very rapidly and it is now 57. We believe that if you are going to strengthen local government, you need crucially to have able people who are representative of their community in the position of a councillor and that is one of the building blocks.

  Chris Grayling: Do you not believe that the process of professionalising the role of a councillor, the structures that are being put in place, really makes the responsibility for the most active councillors much more onerous than it was in the past and is in itself making it impossible for anybody who has a substantial professional life to participate as a councillor? It is something we have touched upon in our previous inquiries. Adjusting benefit payments for councillors does not avoid the fact that if you professionalise them, if you make them semi-full-time, you make it impossible for anybody who wants another career to do the job and that is the root of the problem. The reason you have got 57-year-olds is because they are the people who have got the time to do it.

Christine Russell

  433. Can I add a quick supplementary to that before you respond. Is it not true that increasingly employers nowadays are reluctant to let their employees have time off for council duties and is that the other reason why the average age is 57?
  (Ms Newman) We have also called for a Public Services Act which would strengthen the position of people wanting to take time off for public duties and we have suggested that compensation is given to employers for time off for public duties. Those are the other things we would like to see considered. Basically we think this needs a very radical reform. We are going down the road at the moment of in some areas it being very, very difficult to find people to stand as councillors and I think you are right in the sense that the job is becoming more difficult.


  434. Can you give us a specific example of where it is difficult to get councillors to stand?
  (Ms Newman) I think if you ask a lot of—

  435. No, no, I want a specific example. We all believe things, but what we need is concrete evidence and you cannot give us any concrete evidence.
  (Mr Reed) I think we can give you concrete evidence. At recent meetings of our Management Committee, which represents all our local authority affiliates, I think, from every Party, the message was exactly the same, that—

  436. I am not asking you about the message. I understand the message. Where is the example? Can we have a local authority where there is a problem?
  (Mr Reed) I cannot give you an example where parties are not having difficulty getting sufficient people to stand as councillors.

Christine Russell

  437. Can I ask you both for very succinct answers to this: who does this Bill give power to—local government or central government?
  (Ms Newman) I think it is hard to give a succinct answer. There are in the Bill, which are very hard to see, like the financial framework, but there are a series of places within the Bill where there are reserve powers kept for the Secretary of State. There is also the issue that a lot of the Bill cannot be judged without—


  438. Come on, on a balance of some scales, which way is it going?
  (Mr Reed) Well, I would say that because the core of the draft Bill in terms of central/local relations is the Comprehensive Performance Framework provisions, that has tilted things too far to the central.

Mr Betts

  439. I think you have expressed the view, the LGIU, that you felt that the Government instinctively wanted to give that bit more freedom and power to local government and when it actually came to drafting the details of the Bill, it could not bring itself to do it. Is that how you feel about it?
  (Mr Reed) That is precisely so. It is true on the Performance Framework, it is true on the regulations which are likely to emerge on trading and charging, so yes.
  (Ms Newman) And the reserve powers on finance which actually are totally unnecessary.

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