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Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, I have listened with great interest to some of the contributions made in this debate. I realise that it is a tradition of this House that everyone speaks in tones of sweet reason, even though their arguments might not be entirely reasonable in themselves.

However, I have noticed a number of contradictions in what has been said. The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, seemed to argue that the arrival of an elected mayor in London would inspire a great deal of excitement and interest among the electorate. He contrasted that with the lack of excitement and interest that at present appears to exist in local government more generally. If that is the case, and if it is the case that a change in the system will inspire interest and excitement in London, that rather suggests that the existing system is not inspiring interest elsewhere within local government. It also suggests that we should look very seriously at the proposals before us.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for his contribution. I believe that it highlights the exact problem that we are debating. If it is believed--it is certainly a belief that I share--that by introducing an executive scrutiny split one introduces clarity into local government decision-making, that in itself should produce greater interest and confidence in the processes. People will know who is responsible for what decision. It will not be possible for councillors to hide behind baroque committee systems in terms of where decisions are being taken. Of course, as has happened in so many authorities--I believe that people are being slightly disingenuous if they pretend that it has not happened--it will no longer be necessary for decisions to be taken by small groups and then processed through public committee meetings and public structures.

However, I am concerned that--

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I raise a point that later we shall come to more substantially with our amendment. However, will the noble Lord concede that where the executive is allowed to meet in private and to take decisions, no notice of which has been given to the public, the Bill as drafted will still allow that lack of clarity to continue because the public will discover those decisions only after the event?

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, I do not accept that. Who is responsible for the decision will be absolutely fundamentally clear to the electorate. It will be clear where that decision has been made. A whole series of requirements will be set down in the statute regarding how it may be scrutinised and, if need be, called in by the full council. Therefore, I believe that the provision will aid clarity rather than otherwise.

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However, at the moment the public do not know which body may or may not be looking at a matter and do not know when that issue is resolved. This provision will at least ensure that there is a proper process, subject to subsequent scrutiny.

The noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, raised the point that some authorities will have very different circumstances and that those will require special consideration. That argument may have some force. Unfortunately, none of the amendments before us in this grouping allows us to examine that point. I do not say that I would have supported it, but if someone had put forward an amendment stating that authorities would be entitled to look at alternative models for district councils of that particular nature or those with no overall control, or councils with a variety of other definitions where that would be a problem, I believe that that would have enabled us to debate what I suspect is the real issue. However, the present wording of the amendments permits authorities which are not particularly keen, for whatever reason, on having a clear executive scrutiny split to get round this legislation. I believe that that is unfortunate.

I suspect that one of the reasons why this House encourages its Members to talk in tones of sweet reason is that it enables them to propose amendments which remove the heart of a piece of legislation in tones of such sweetness and lightness that perhaps it is hoped that the Government will not notice what is being proposed. However, I believe that what the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, proposes on this occasion is fairly clear. He is aiming to take the heart out of this particular part of the legislation. I believe that it is unfortunate that we do not have before us an amendment which would test the question which the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, and a number of other noble Lords have suggested they are concerned about; that is, the question of certain types of council where an executive scrutiny split is perhaps not appropriate.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, asked how we can ensure that people will continue to want to be councillors. I suggest that if we put forward a structure which provides clarity about the role for which people put themselves forward for election, that is likely to induce a much greater degree of job satisfaction than does the existing arrangement. Under the current arrangement, even if people are in the party which wins the election, when they put themselves forward they do not know whether they will be part of a charmed circle which makes decisions or outside that circle. If, as is the case with some of the models which will be permissible under the executive scrutiny split, it is possible for people to put themselves forward to be executive decision-makers or, alternatively, to be local representative councillors involved in overview and scrutiny of policy, I believe that that will produce more clarity and will lead to better "job satisfaction" (if noble Lords will forgive the term) among local councillors.

The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, was right to say that there are strong feelings within local government about this issue. Those strong feelings

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often come from those who do not want to proceed to an executive scrutiny split. Yet it is precisely because so many of those people who do not even want to consider the executive scrutiny split will be given comfort by the amendments in this grouping today that I would urge noble Lords to reject the amendments in favour of something which at least allows us to provide clear and explicit roles for executive and scrutiny members.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down--I hope being sweetly reasonable, which I regard as a virtue rather than the opposite--does he not accept that my Amendment No. 13, which provides for executive arrangements which are, among other things, appropriate to local circumstances, is, if not perfect, at any rate a reasonable stab at addressing the difficulties of councils with a history of independence or where there is no overall political control? If the noble Lord is himself sweetly reasonable, as I am sure he will be, then rather than dismiss all the amendments in this group, he might seek to build on that approach.

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, I gave a great deal of thought to the noble Baroness's Amendment No. 13 because I thought that might be the opportunity to address the concerns which had been raised by noble Lords on the Cross Benches. But I do not believe that it achieves that.

I would hope that in every case, people will put forward proposals which will enhance decision-making; which will meet the principles of transparency, accountability and efficiency; and will be appropriate to their local circumstances. Nothing in the Bill precludes that. But I do not believe that a subsection with the words,

    "be appropriate to local circumstances",

quite meets the requirements. Those requirements must be to address the particular circumstances of certain types of local authorities with a certain type of population and certain political make-ups. If the amendments had gone on to spell that out in some detail, then we could have had the debate which people claim they want to have today.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Harris, has explained why the system will work well. I can see from the point of view of his council, that it may be very helpful indeed. But I want to ask one question.

My noble friend Lord Onslow described the council of Guildford. In such a council, will the officials have the same role as they have now, vis-a-vis individual councillors? Among all the amendments, I cannot see any place where the Bill defines the role of the officials. I may have missed it because it is difficult to absorb them all. It certainly was not in the Bill before. Is there to be any legal requirement on officials to advise all councillors, whichever side of the divide they are on and whichever committee they are on? It is absolutely essential that in local government, every member has access to officials and to information from officials.

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I should be interested to know whether that is provided in the Bill or whether the Government are trusting to luck.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood: My Lords, I wish to support the views put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, views which I have expressed myself, as to the difficulty of recruiting people to be what you might call second-class councillors.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, attempted to defuse that argument by saying that it would clarify the situation. Yes, it would. But, for example, what would I have done in my early years in the county council? I should have had to go to the electorate of Dorking South and say, "Look, chaps, there is not a cat in hell's chance that I am going to be on the executive because I have only been on the council for a few years. So you will have to elect me in order that once decisions have been taken, I can query why they have been taken and what the costs of them will be".

I can tell your Lordships what happened when I was a councillor. First, quite often, even as a very junior councillor with a large Tory majority at that time, I was able to influence decisions as they were taken; for example, in the education committee, of which I was then a member, and later in the highways and transport committee.

Not only that, but I told people in my part of the world in which decisions I had been involved and what I had done about them. I did that either through the press or through the literature which I circulated. If they did not like what I had been doing, they had a very simple remedy: they could throw me out at the next election.

I agree strongly with the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, when he said that where there are contested elections, the percentage of people who bother to go to the polls increases. As a Liberal and subsequently as a Liberal Democrat, my observation has been that every time we have made a really successful foray into local government elections, the percentage of people going out to vote increases, and the reason is that people have something to vote for or against, depending on their viewpoint.

The suggestion was put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, that some of the disadvantages which the Government are suggesting could be overcome if the council was made the main decision-taker. We may all have had experiences of sensible decision-taking in committee, where people listen to the argument, decide and, to some extent, modify proposals in the light of argument. I have succeeded in modifying decisions in precisely that way. But I have seldom seen decisions taken seriously in full council because that is where every member makes either the speech determined by his group prior to the council meeting or--in some cases I have seen it happen--the speech handed down by party headquarters to make on that occasion on that subject. It is by far the most party-political part of the process.

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In some councils there is a large majority of one party. They do still exist, despite our best efforts. I can remember some doubts expressed by my noble friend on the Front Bench when her council became not just a Liberal, as it then was, majority but a Liberal monopoly. Serious doubts were then raised as to the democratic nature of the vote, which was determined in the old-fashioned way and not by proportional representation, when the Labour Party and the Conservative Party were entirely excluded from the government of Richmond-upon-Thames. So the matter is as close and as relevant to us as it is to other people.

But where there are large overall majorities, it is extremely difficult to make sure that there is a fully public discussion of policy and that decisions are taken which reflect that debate. It is in relation to those councils which will be subject to all the regulations which this Government are trying to put in this Bill--which I consider to be, on the whole, bad for local government--that the effects will be the worst.

5.15 p.m.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, as other noble Lords have said, we have been round this course before. I am not entirely sure that "canter" is the right term, but many points have been made at earlier stages of the Bill. I recognise that the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, has been consistent on this and that he regards this as a central principle of the Bill. He has been consistent, but I am not entirely sure that his party has been consistent as regards the relationship it wants between central and local government. In the long term, once this change has taken place, the noble Lord and I will probably be closer as regards what the appropriate relationship should be.

But at present, we do need change. I recognise also, as the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield and others have said, that there is unease and concern among councillors. But we are at a point where we wish to change the way in which local government operates. Those in your Lordships' House who believe that the status quo is appropriate are few and far between. They are saying that, in practice, most councils will choose to change. Does that not mean that there is a need for change in local government and does it not probably mean--not inevitably, logically--that that minority of councils which do not wish to change are probably the councils which really should change and need to change?

That, therefore, lies behind the whole of the Government's approach. We are seeking a quiet revolution in local government. I am not often allowed to use those terms from these Benches but I do so today. That requires all councils to look at change and decide which form of change they want.

The status quo, based on the committee system, which, at various points, has served local government well but is now creaking at the seams, is not an option and cannot be an option.

The Government believe that we need a whole new form of governance which rests, as we have said, on transparency in relation to who is taking decisions;

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what those decisions are; and what is the accountability for those decisions. Contrary to what the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, and others have said, we believe that the fact that we can identify with clarity those decisions and those responsible for them will both enhance the appeal of local government for those who might wish to come into it and enhance confidence in local government among the electorate as a whole, as my noble friends Lord Filkin and Lord Harris of Haringey have said.

Therefore, the Government require, as a principle of the Bill, that all councils should change, and change to a system which involves an executive structure. The Bill also requires that those proposals must be put forward in consultation with local people and it gives local people the right to decide explicitly in relation to a directly-elected mayor, if that is the proposition. The key to accountability is a system of governance which people understand and support.

Having said that we wish to achieve a revolution, clearly in the best revolutions, once change is achieved, diversity follows. There is diversity within our proposals. Within the three categories of executive arrangements that the Bill makes available, there is great diversity and substantial choice, as distinct from the old system which specified one structure for committees which was stretched as far as possible by many local authorities, but nevertheless was laid down by countless Local Government Acts over the past century and a bit. I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield. I believe that most other countries would lay down more precisely the structure of local government in their written constitutions than we are attempting or wishing to do.

The Bill allows us also, by virtue of subsection 10(5), to make available other categories of executive if appropriate. If a council has a proposal for a further form of executive which meets our aims, the Secretary of State can use the power to establish such a form of executive. Our bottom line is that, whatever additional arrangements may be made, there must be a separate executive under our structure. The first three of these amendments, including the one moved by the noble Lord, in fact undermine that central principle of the Bill. There are a number of arguments that the division between executive and scrutiny, in whatever form it takes, will undermine the role of existing councillors and of councils themselves.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said that she did not recognise our view of existing local government; that on occasion decisions have been taken which are unaccounted for and completely lacking in clarity and transparency. I make no judgment on the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, but I know of councils represented primarily by my own party where that has been the case. In a neighbouring council to the noble Baroness's own, in which we currently sit, it was not long ago transparently the case that all decisions were taken behind closed doors; in fact, behind one particular closed door, if I recall. That was Westminster City

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Council. The rest of the Conservative group did not know what was going on, let alone the rest of the council as a whole.

I therefore believe that there are problems with the old structure and that there are probably more problems in those areas resistant to change. Our proposals will not mean that councillors are disfranchised or downgraded. The whole council will set the broad policy and the budget. Every councillor will be represented. If they are in scrutiny roles, they will be in a more powerful position to scrutinise the decisions of the executive than they were as junior members of the committee.

The Bill is a proposal for change. The role of councillors will be changed. The noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, asked whether the role of officers would be changed. That is not essentially the case. Officers will, of course, continue to serve the full council. We have explained in our guidance that councils will have to consider carefully the structure of support officers in relation to their own particular form of executive structure, but the principle remains that officers serve the whole council.

I turn now to Amendment No. 13, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, referred. I believe that she was hoping that it approximated more to the fourth option proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and perhaps also to the remarks of the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon. I do not believe that the amendment fulfils their purpose. As I understand the point made in the Joint Committee to which the noble Earl referred, it related specifically to councils which had no real tradition of one party control or dominant party control. The Joint Committee put that forward for that particular situation. The noble Baroness's option is of course a far more generalised option, but the members of the Joint Committee recognised that there should be arrangements for a council manager--in other words, an option which is already there and which already has a wide variety of forms.

The Bill explicitly provides executive arrangements for an elected mayor and a council. That will probably be appropriate in relation to the kind of council to which I believe the noble Earl referred. I do not believe that the amendment fulfils the fourth option ambitions of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, because it is too loosely drafted--as perhaps the noble Baroness herself was hinting--not to exclude entirely something which is close to backsliding to a committee-based structure.

We are at a crucial point in the Bill. For the Government, this is a crucial issue in the Bill. I hope that the noble Lord does not pursue his amendment. If he does, he needs to know and understand that he is challenging a central part of the Bill. The Government will resist the amendment and will continue to resist such amendments during the passage of the Bill. I therefore must oppose Amendment No. 10 which he moved. I oppose Amendments Nos. 11 and 12 for the reasons I have outlined. The Government would also oppose Amendment No. 13. I do not believe that

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Amendment No. 13, as drafted, achieves what a number of noble Lords were hoping for. I hope that the noble Lord will not pursue his amendment.

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