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Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, as this is the first opportunity for me to speak today, I should like to make a few general comments. I believe that the process we have been through in this House on the Bill has brought us to a shared understanding and shared goals across the House on many, if not all, the issues raised by this legislation. I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Tanworth, to the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for the way that they have contributed to this opportunity to look at such issues in a spirit of consensus. I am also grateful for the opportunity that the amendments provide for me to clarify a few further points which I hope will be of assistance to the House.
I believe that all of us, from all sides of the House, welcome the permissive rather than the prescriptive nature of the Bill, grounded as it is in the distinguished experience and knowledge of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, in the field of local government, and the breadth of options for experiment that the Bill will enable.
Under the Bill, the experimental arrangements proposed by a local authority could comprise a cabinet system as permitted by Clause 1(2)(d). Such a system is one where there are executive functions discharged by the executive committee corporately but where some or all of its members also have executive responsibilities allocated to them to be discharged as individuals acting alone. With regard to one of the specific points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, it would be perfectly proper for the arrangements proposed by the authority to define the scope of the role of these individuals. That would mean that at least some of their responsibilities would be allocated to them at the time the arrangements were set up, as opposed to being delegated to them by the executive committee after the experiment had begun. They could still have further functions delegated to them by the executive committee, if the approved arrangements allowed this, but the committee would not be the only source of their responsibilities.
The allocation of responsibilities might be clearest where it is defined in the arrangements themselves and the Government are keen to ensure that this is possible under the Bill. I regret that the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, to this clause would unfortunately tend to narrow the range of options available under the Bill and the Government cannot therefore support it. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has also proposed that the Bill should include in the list of those matters to be covered in an application the question of the ceremonial role of the mayor. It is clear that this is an important issue--no one understands that more than myself. My first experience of local government was in Preston with its long, fine charter and the ceremony of the guild mayor. It is an important issue that will have to be addressed by authorities in designing their experimental arrangements and the Bill contains a number of possible modifications to legislation on this point. However, the Government would much prefer to deal with this issue in the guidance to be issued to local authorities under the Bill and we give a commitment to do so.
Finally, and most importantly, the Bill provides at Clause 6(3) that where an authority is conducting an experiment with an executive mayor any proposal by the authority to change the arrangements unilaterally would be wrong. The noble Baroness's amendment would remove the need to obtain the mayor's support. We would view such a step with some concern. It is, of course, possible that there will be disagreements between the executive mayor and the rest of the
The noble Baroness referred to an authority which was under no overall political control. I believe that this atmosphere of consensus and co-operation within some of the new models could contribute to that consensus approach. This should apply to changing the nature of the experiment as it does to any other matter. Authorities should live by the constitution they set up in their approved experimental arrangements. Disputes should be settled within the procedures the authority had defined, and the Secretary of State, in considering proposals for experiments, will ensure that these procedures are adequate.
The provision requiring the executive mayor's approval for an application to change an experiment is necessary to prevent the authority unilaterally from denuding the mayor of his functions or writing him out of the story as a form of conflict resolution. It is an important safeguard and therefore the Government cannot support the noble Baroness's amendment. If any disagreements reached the stage where the experiment had collapsed and had to be wrapped up, the Secretary of State could act to do so. But this would happen only in the most extreme circumstances.
These innovations will last for a specified period and will be accompanied by clear evaluation of their effectiveness. If the mayor is directly elected he will remain in place when control changes, assuming his election does not occur at the same time as that of the rest of the council. It is important to note that if he is indirectly elected, he could be replaced by a council vote.
Lord Hunt of Tanworth: My Lords, I much appreciated the opening remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. It makes me all the sadder that at a time when there is general support for most of the amendments being brought forward today I cannot support the amendments in this group.
I can add little to what the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, has already said on the amendment to the definition of the cabinet. But I believe that the Bill should retain the widest scope for experiment possible and that that objective accords with many of the views that have been expressed in this House and elsewhere since this Bill was introduced.
On the question of the ceremonial role of mayors, I welcome the Government's undertaking to cover this in the guidance. Clearly this will be an issue of great interest to some councils and councillors and they will need some advice. I think the crucial point or difficulty--or whatever you like to call it--is that an executive mayor will not chair the proceedings of the authority. There will be a separate chairman. My Bill already contains modifications, at paragraphs 2, 4, 6, 13, 14, 15 and 16 of the schedule which will enable a local authority to define its executive mayor as the mayor for the authority but to deal separately and make its own choice about the issue
However, the Bill does not contain any power to amend charters. The precise arrangements in each authority where there is a mayor by virtue of a charter (other than one granted under Section 245 of the Local Government Act 1972) will therefore vary, depending upon the precise content of the charter and the relationship between the entities or titles it creates and the exercise of the local authority's functions. Authorities will clearly also need to take account of any such charters in framing their applications for an experiment to the Secretary of State.
Finally, on Amendment No. 17, where there is an experiment with a directly elected mayor there is clearly a separate direct mandate for that mayor. He or she may have sought election on a different platform from any of those of the political groups represented on the council. There are bound to be differences and disagreements. But this is one of the benefits of this model. Such public debate will make it very clear to all--both councillors and the electorate--what the arguments are on a particular issue and how a decision was reached. The public will know why a decision was taken, by whom and be able to weigh up whether they believe it to be right. Surely it must be possible that this will lead to better decision taking and certainly more open decision taking.
I fear that the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, would allow local authorities who found that the mayor and the rest of the authority disagreed on a particular issue to use that as a reason for moving to a different form of experiment, without a mayor, or taking that particular responsibility away from the mayor. I think that would be a great pity. Not only would it be an inappropriate form of conflict resolution, but it would cut across a directly elected mayor's own democratic mandate. Clearly that would damage his role as the political leader of the community. I therefore believe that the authority must not have the power--unilaterally, and during the period of an experiment--to change experimental arrangements which include an executive mayor without the agreement of the mayor. I hope therefore that the noble Baroness will not press these amendments.
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, as I hope I indicated--perhaps I should fill in the gap between the lines--my amendments were intended to be probing amendments. However, as the debate has continued, it occurs to me how important it will be that the arrangements which are approved, and the time over which an experiment can take place, will need to be dovetailed into the period for which a mayor may be elected.