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Local Government (Experimental Arrangements) Bill [H.L.]

7.26 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Tanworth: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. It is unusual for a measure of this kind to be introduced and

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sponsored from the Cross Benches. First, it seeks to give effect to one of the recommendations of the Select Committee on Relations between Central and Local government which I had the honour to chair and which reported unanimously on a cross-party basis in July last year. Secondly, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, indicated in a debate on an Unstarred Question on 23rd July this year (at col. 1500 of the Official Report) that since time had not been found for a Government Bill this Session, if I were to introduce a Private Member's Bill it would have government support. That is my justification. Before I go further, I must also declare an interest in that I am honorary president of the Local Government Association, which has welcomed the Bill.

This should be an important debate and there are a number of distinguished speakers taking part. I look forward with particular pleasure and interest to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Bassam. He will be speaking not only with his authority and experience as the leader of his own council but also as someone who over many years has taken a great interest in and spoken and written about good government and good practice and how to make local government more effective and more accountable. I am sure he will say things of great interest to us.

Before offering some comments on the main provisions of the Bill, perhaps I ought to try to answer the question: why do we want experimental arrangements in local government decision-taking arrangements? After all, the existing statutory committee structure is long established and people are used to it. Why do we want to change it? There are three rather different reasons. First, local authorities are very different in size and nature. What works well in one place does not necessarily work well in another. That is why the Council of Europe Charter of Local Self Government, which the present Government have signed, says in Article 6 that,

    "without prejudice to more general statutory provisions, local authorities should be able to determine their own internal administrative structures in order to adapt them to local needs and ensure effective management".

At present, there are unnecessary constraints preventing our own local authorities doing just that.

The second reason is that over many years local government has become both more complex and more political. As a result, most major policy decisions are now taken not in the formal committee structure but in smaller political groups of the majority party. Yet the need subsequently to process these decisions through the formal committee structure both blurs accountability between the executive and representative processes and is also one of the things which led the Audit Commission recently to conclude that councillors spend far too much time in committees rather than with their community.

As long ago as 1993 a working party established by the then Secretary of State for the Environment and comprising representatives of both central and local government suggested that the pretence that all councillors have equal power and equal responsibilities

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was no longer sustainable and that experiments in decision-taking arrangements which recognised that fact should be tried.

The third reason is that while there is widespread acceptance of the importance of local government itself, public interest in its actual processes is at an all-time low, which is reflected in the deplorably low turnout at local elections. The need for clearer accountability is matched by the need for democratic innovations which will encourage local people to exercise their democratic interest and authority over matters of direct concern to them. The Bill, however, is confined to ways of doing this through the arrangements for decision-taking by local authorities. Other possible ways of revitalising local democracy--for example, changes in voting arrangements--will have to await discussion in the context of the White Paper which the Government intend to publish next year.

Against those reasons for change, Clause 1(5) of the Bill sets out three overriding criteria for any experimental arrangements: first, that they should be likely to lead to decisions being taken in a more efficient and more accountable way; secondly, that they should be likely to lead to decisions being taken with greater regard to local government electors and other interested persons in the authority's area; and, thirdly, that they should include provisions for members of the authority--that means members of all political parties--to scrutinise the exercise of any functions to which the arrangements relate. Those three criteria underlie and inform the duties placed on councils, on the Secretary of State, on monitoring officers and on everyone else concerned in the Bill.

I wish to emphasise that the Bill is permissive and not prescriptive: no one would be forced to do anything. It would, however, allow authorities to apply to the Secretary of State for approval to operate an experimental scheme for a limited period and would enable him to make an order, subject to the negative resolution procedure in both Houses of Parliament, making temporary modifications to certain current legislation where these are necessary to allow the scheme to proceed and provided the criteria of efficiency, accountability and transparency are observed.

The Bill has 13 clauses of which the first three are the crucial ones. Clause 1, in addition to setting out the criteria to which I have referred, lists a menu of options which might improve the decision-making process but which are not permitted under current legislation. Broadly, these are the direct election of a mayor with executive functions from a single ward comprising the whole of the authority's area; arrangements to allow the appointment of executive or advisory committees, the membership of which does not conform to the existing requirements about political balance; arrangements to delegate the discharge of functions to individual members of the authority whether it is to lead members for particular issues or to an indirectly elected mayor; and arrangements for the appointment of scrutiny

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committees to scrutinise any functions of the authority and in particular those subject to an experimental scheme.

There are variants of these broad categories which are spelt out in the Bill but I wish to emphasise one point. The Bill specifies that experiments may not include the discharge by an ordinary member or by an elected mayor of any functions which, but virtue of any enactment, may be discharged only by the authority itself or by an officer of the authority; for example the level of the local budget and council tax which have to be set by the full council.

The objective of any experiment would be to sharpen and make more accountable the decision-making process. I should, however, add a word about the proposal to allow experiments with committees whose membership might be from the majority party only. The argument, which was endorsed by the joint working party in 1993, to which I referred, is that this would make the decision-making process both more expeditious and more transparent. It would be more expeditious because it would avoid the cumbersome two-stage process, to which I referred, and more transparent because discussion in a committee composed only of the majority party would be brought within the formal decision structure with advice from officials, minutes which would be made available, in particular to an all-party scrutiny committee, and so on. I ought, however, to make one thing clear. It would not be the intention to approve an experiment which involved a departure from the normal requirements of political balance on committees unless it was accompanied by an all-party scrutiny committee to preserve and formalise the rights of minority parties.

Clause 2 contains the procedure to be followed by an authority which wants to submit an experimental scheme for approval and Clause 3, the procedure to be followed by the Secretary of State when he receives such an application. The clauses are somewhat detailed and technical, but they are important since the Secretary of State will need to know not only the objectives of the scheme and how it would meet local needs, but also how the arrangements between members and officers and between the executive and other members would work; how conflicts would be resolved; and what the safeguards for propriety and access to information would be, and so on. Noble Lords will also note that before reaching his decision the Secretary of State is required to consult the Audit Commission as well as the Local Government Association. Clause 10 requires the authority's head of paid service and monitoring officer to make an annual report on the effect of an approved scheme which will go to the Secretary of State.

The other clauses deal mainly with arrangements for extending or varying an experimental scheme and repeat much of what is in the first three clauses. I would like to emphasise one point arising from them. An experimental scheme could be approved for up to a maximum of eight years in the first place, and it could be extended only once, again subject to the negative resolution procedure, for up to a further four years. No further extension would be possible without primary legislation since it is not felt that the possible

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modifications to existing legislation listed in the schedule to the Bill should be other than for a defined and temporary period. In other words, the whole purpose of the Bill is to allow certain temporary experiments and not to become a backdoor way of introducing long-term changes.

I do not suggest that any one of the options which would be permitted by the Bill, which applies only to England and Wales, is necessarily a panacea for revitalising local democracy. Indeed, an attempt to impose a uniform approach to structural reform at this stage might be a recipe for disaster. I am, however, convinced that, as the Select Committee strongly recommended last year, local authorities should be allowed to conduct pilot experiments subject to the safeguards proposed. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.--(Lord Hunt of Tanworth.)

7.40 p.m.

Baroness Maddock: My Lords, I am well aware of the background that has led to this Bill and I welcome the opportunity that it gives us all to raise the profile of a very important part of our democratic process, local government. I also welcome the idea of giving local councils greater freedom to experiment. I share the noble Lord's desire to make local government much more accountable; much more accessible, particularly for constituents; and more attractive so that people will put themselves forward as councillors to serve their communities.

However, I have many reservations about the detail of the Bill. As we shall have an opportunity to discuss the details in Committee, perhaps I may confine my remarks this evening to just two areas. I should like to concentrate particularly on accountability and on certain aspects of the experimentation, as well as on how we can make local government more attractive both to candidates and the voting public.

I start with accountability. I am afraid that, unless we see stronger safeguards in the Bill for back-benchers and opposition members, I am not sure that allowing individuals certain powers and setting up one-party committees will increase accountability. However, perhaps I may suggest one or two things that might do that: we could devolve committee structures to local areas, allow members of the public to question councillors: and allow members of the public the right to speak in committee on certain items. I believe that such changes are more likely to increase the accountability of our local councillors. Liberal Democrat councils have successfully introduced the latter proposals and have allowed public question times--quite often in the face of strong opposition from other parties, but sometimes with their agreement.

On the point about a committee structure, I believe that devolving the committee structure to local level has, where it has been tried, done an incredible amount to bring the public closer to their councils and to make the councillors more accountable to the public. I have experience of two councils which I know well and which are run by Liberal Democrats. One is Kingston

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and the other is East Hampshire. One is an urban authority; the other is a rural authority, but, more or less independently, they have set up similar systems. Councillors have found that when dealing with planning matters--always a difficult area for local councillors--they have been under great scrutiny from local people and they have been held accountable for the way in which they have voted on certain issues.

We must try to attract candidates to local government and help people to become interested in serving as local councillors. I agree that many people who could use their expertise and interests to the benefit of their local communities are at present deterred from standing for local councils. That is partly because the world of work has changed so much in recent years. The jobs market is very competitive and it is now difficult for people to take time off work so that they can devote the necessary time to being a local councillor. I believe that people have been put off for another reason: in recent years many decisions have been centralised. Local people feel that they do not have much power so they ask why they should put themselves out by spending a lot of time in the council when they can make only a few decisions. Finance has been a particularly difficult area for local councils. We have had capping and all sorts of restrictions so people question exactly what decisions are now left to local councillors. That area needs further consideration.

I turn now to the voters. I do not quite follow the logic of the argument that the committee structure would encourage voters to think that everything was much more accountable. I believe that that is up to the individual councillors. I agree with the noble Lord that councillors of all parties tend to get extremely hung up about the day-to-day running of their local councils and to forget who elected them to that place. Voting history shows that those councillors who take the trouble to keep in touch with their electorate, to go out and be involved in their local community and to bring the council nearer to that local community, are those who make the people in that community more interested in local government. I believe that that increases the turn-out. In an area in which I was very active when a councillor, we increased our turn-out because we made local government important to local people. We are well known for that as Liberal Democrats. We tend to publish what are called "focus leaflets" which at certain times cause consternation, but which have a purpose and ensure that people are kept in touch with what is going on.

I would not be a Liberal Democrat if I did not take this opportunity to say that I think that the electorate would be more interested in voting in local elections if we had a fairer and more representative electoral system. I know that that point was raised when the general matter was investigated. I hope that at some stage in the future that possibility will become a reality.

The intention of the Bill is laudable, but I do not think that the reality will quite meet the intention. The Bill seeks to improve the administrative running of councils, but we must also take a look at the democratic process. Achieving the right balance between those two is important. It may be that as the Bill progresses some of

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the safeguards about which I am concerned can be included in order to address those problems. I am aware that I am probably in a minority tonight in giving the Bill what could be called "lukewarm" support. Given that I am a Liberal Democrat and that we always wax lyrical about being the leaders of experiments in local government, that may surprise some people, but I hope that I have explained some of the reasons behind my views. I look forward to the rest of the debate and particularly to the speech of my noble friend Lady Hamwee who is a councillor of long standing, with a great deal of experience of experimentation in local government.

7.48 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, as is traditional, I am sure, on the occasion of making one's first speech in your Lordships' House, I have taken extensive advice on how one should conduct oneself. The most useful document is, of course, the single sheet of A4 paper provided by an unknown author from the Whips' Office which simply advises maiden speakers to be,

    "unprovocative and refrain from saying anything that might give offence, politically or otherwise".

So, having taken extensive advice I decided to join in a debate about local government. Looking around the Chamber this evening I am not so sure about the wisdom of that decision.

However, the subject of the debate is one which I find hard to resist--and here perhaps I should declare an interest as leader of one of the nation's better known local authorities, Brighton and Hove. The future of local government is very much on the agenda and I welcome the opportunity to make some observations on the content of the Local Government (Experimental Arrangements) Bill, standing in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Tanworth.

The noble Lord is, in my view, to be congratulated on an act of outstanding bravery in bringing this measure forward. Looking at the Rowntree Trust poll of 1,600 councillors conducted in 1994, I note that only 3 per cent. of those members decided that they liked the idea of an elected mayor and just 13 per cent. favoured the principle of executive Cabinet-style structures. Yet national public opinion polls show 70 per cent. to 90 per cent. support for such measures.

The debate about the modernisation of local government is one that will increase in intensity. It is not one that will always attract widespread support, largely because of a misunderstanding of the intent of the proposals and their effect. After all, this is an enabling piece of legislation. It provides an opportunity for change; it does not prescribe change. In so doing it does not offer either carrot or stick. For this reason it is to be welcomed. Local authorities have a choice. They can embrace its principles or continue working as they do currently. The choice is theirs. Its principal innovatory features would enable local councils to create directly elected executive leaders or mayors, establish political executives or cabinet style local government, delegate some decisions to lead or executive councillors and

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arrange for the appointment of scrutiny or select committees. All are important measures in whole or part.

Variants of these models can be put in place, but whatever they are they must conform to the important principle of making local authorities more accountable, efficient and effective. All of these objectives must be in the public interest and the interests of good public service.

Some councils, and no doubt many councillors, will ask why they should embrace this agenda for change. To them I have this observation to make. Why is it that in almost any public opinion survey undertaken the public continue to be largely ignorant or ill-informed about the business of local democracy and yet also crave more information and access to their local council and its decision making processes?

Authorities like my own, Lewisham, Camden, York, Bradford, South Somerset, Sutton, Derbyshire, and many, many others, have over the past few years undertaken extensive efforts to develop community planning and consultation mechanisms to open up the democratic processes of local governance and let the people into its "secret garden". Yet with all of this activity, and no doubt with unqualified success in terms of feedback, are we really creating a more participative local government system or a system in which people really find they have a say? If so I fancy that we would see larger turnouts in local elections.

The fact is that in terms of performance league tables--as a Brighton and Hove Albion fan I know about these things---

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