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Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I shall endeavour not to appear steely to the noble Lord, Lord Laming. The Government strongly believe that the new forms of constitution available in Part II of the Bill will lead to more efficient, transparent and accountable local government, and that they will reinforce the best value regime in the Local Government Act 1999--I endorse the view of the noble Lord--for delivering value for money and high quality services. As the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer said, high quality services are the ultimate test of effective and good local government.
During the Committee stage of the Bill, I undertook to consider further how we could meet the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Laming. The noble Lord has discussed the matter briefly with me and with the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. I have written this week to the noble Lord, Lord Laming, indicating that we shall bring forward an amendment at Third Reading which I believe will meet the substance of his concerns. I hope, therefore, that the House will indulge me by considering a further amendment at Third Reading. On that basis, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Laming: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, and for her courtesy in writing to me as she did. I readily accept that the amendment in my name on the Marshalled List is in lay language which might not pass the test of a constitutional lawyer. Therefore, I happily leave it to the noble Baroness and the department to get that right. In those circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment is tabled in order to enable local communities to have a petition and subsequently a referendum to cease to operate executive arrangements. We are back in the business of whether local communities have opinions which they are entitled to express, which have validity and worth and are appropriate in the management of affairs in their own community.
The Minister made much of figures indicating that the public at large are in favour of elected mayors. I am bound to say that in general those figures could be interpreted in that way. But one needs to be extremely careful with statistics. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for persuading the Minister that the statistics should be revealed. They indicate support for elected mayors, in particular from urban communities.
That could be interpreted as being representative of the total community because the majority of the population lives in urban communities. Indeed, a large proportion of the population lives in cities, as the figures show. However, we must bear in mind that the community at large does not live entirely in cities; many people live in more rural environments. It is not possible to detect from the survey whether those who believe that elected mayors are less appropriate to their community come from one particular area as opposed to another, and possibly from rural areas.
Of the earlier survey work which backs up the most recent survey, one was in the London Borough of Lewisham; the second was of 763 adults across Britain, producing a similar result; and the third was a survey of 1,000 people in five major cities. That is interesting, but as one goes further into the papers one discovers more interesting information. A survey conducted by MORI shows that 92 per cent of the population believe that councils need to consult the public more. If that is so, it must be because the public believe that they have opinions which have validity and worth and which ought to be recognised.
The purpose of my amendment is to increase the recognition of local views in particular communities. The Bill as drafted is a one-way track into a cul-de-sac. It is executive arrangements as described in the Bill or nothing--and, unless there is further primary legislation, you cannot come out once you have passed a resolution to go in.
That is not the way to deal with the management of local government. I am a great believer in local communities. I believe that they have views and that where appropriate they should be allowed to determine their own arrangements. I believe that, if not in the big cities, in many of the more rural parts of the country people should be given the opportunity to
For that reason, I have tabled the amendment. The provision in the Bill is not good government. It shows a remarkable lack of confidence on the part of the Government that they feel that they have to dragoon everyone into the new managerial systems. We should be quite clear that those managerial systems are not yet proven in this country. They are still highly experimental. I remember years ago, when we were being obliged by another Labour government to undertake a great social experiment, remarking to a colleague that if we were wrong we bore a dreadful responsibility.
I should prefer that that responsibility rested with the local communities so that they could make up their minds and had themselves to blame if subsequently things did not go well. It is not that I want to wash my hands of responsibility, but that I believe that other people are responsible and that where they can be responsible for their own affairs they should be. In this matter, I believe that they should have the right to choose and therefore I have tabled this amendment. I beg to move.
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for making available the survey material. I am sure that it will repay more examination than we have been able to give it during the short time we have had it. However, like the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, I was struck by the 92 per cent of people who believe that councils need to consult the public more and by the 91 per cent who believe that councils need to improve their provision of services. Those were the highest figures in response to any of the questions.
I note that the work was carried out on behalf of the new local government network. Can the Minister confirm whether the Government have undertaken any surveys and whether those he has placed in the Library are all that are available to them? During the first day of the Report stage on Monday, the Minister referred to the survey evidence that was available to the Government. I should be grateful if he could explain whether this is the extent of it.
I also noted the not insignificant number of people who responded to the question whether having the opportunity to vote for a mayor would make them more or less likely to vote. Many people stated that it would make them less likely to vote. I am still trying to work out the significance of that because there must be some.
Questions were asked about knowledge of the proposed mayor of London. Knowledge of London's new mayor was high. That is not surprising. Respondents would be aware of the fact, but certainly not of the detail. We must be careful in extrapolating from these surveys and applying the response directly to local authorities. As the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, said, there are many varieties of local authority.
Lord Whitty: We debated a similar amendment in Committee and I indicated that we could not accept the proposal. It would create significant instability in the new arrangements. The noble Lord says that this is a one-way track. It is not, because the authorities can initiate a change in any system back to an alternative system.
The electorate will twice have approved the arrangements for an elected mayor: in a referendum and in the mayoral election. Therefore, that situation is different from that of a petition to move to arrangements including an elected mayor from those where there is not an elected mayor. In that situation, local people would not normally have expressed their support, through a referendum, for the arrangements in operation at the time.
The noble Lord and the noble Baroness referred to the evidence that we have placed in the Library. On Monday, I used the term "such evidence as we have available". It repeatedly shows that people favour arrangements with an elected mayor, but that the majority of councils do not.
In response to the noble Baroness, the only research undertaken by the Government was a survey of the People's Panel which gave roughly the same result as that given by the network. We do not have comprehensive material available. I would be happy to provide what we have, but I must be a little hesitant here and refer only to that evidence. However, all the evidence points in the same direction. Given the dichotomy of views between councils and local people, it is sensible, where a council does not follow the wishes of the people, that the people should be able to force through a referendum for an elected mayor.
There is, of course, the possibility that local people could petition the council for such a referendum, but afterwards it should be for the authority to decide whether to act on such a petition. It will have to judge whether public opinion is such that it would be right to hold a referendum to change from mayoral executive arrangements to different systems, despite the relatively recent approval of existing arrangements on at least two occasions.
Provided that five years had passed since the previous referendum, it would be open to an authority, be it a rural, urban, district or county authority, voluntarily to draw up proposals and hold a referendum to change from executive arrangements involving a mayor to different executive arrangements.
One other consideration as regards the detail of the noble Lord's proposal needs to be taken on board. Noble Lords will recall that, in a slightly different context in response to the Joint Committee, we have
Under the provisions of the noble Lord's amendment, what would happen if people voted to abandon the arrangements? It is not specified in the amendment that an alternative system would have to be proposed. Would a council be able to propose any system? For example, would it be able to return to the status quo--the current committee system? I realise that this returns to an old difference between us, but I am afraid that the Government could not accept a situation where we would allow a return to the present committee-based system. If I interpret the noble Lord's amendment correctly, this could be something of a back-door method of returning to those arrangements.
For those reasons the amendment is not acceptable in principle. Because it does not specify an alternative outcome to abandoning the mayoral structure, it does not go far enough in offering a practical format on which to conduct a referendum. I therefore hope that the noble Lord will not press his amendment.
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