Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320-335)|
TUESDAY 9 JULY 2002
320. Should the appeal be to the courts or should
there be an appeal process put into it?
(Mr Travers) It would be surprising if there were
not some form of appeal mechanism built into the arrangements
and, indeed, one would hope that the Audit Commission and the
Government will build such a mechanism in because if they do not
there is the risk that it will go to court.
321. Professor Stoker, back to you. In the opening
paragraph of your paper you say "the key question is: does
the Bill do enough to provide the capacity for councils to make
a difference in their communities". Perhaps you would like
to tell us what you think the answer is.
(Professor Stoker) I think the answer is as I really
came to the argument in the paper I presented, that it is a good
starting point but it is not enough. I do not know anyone in the
local government or the academic community who would describe
themselves as even moderately excited by this draft Bill. It is
not going to set the world on fire in terms of a change in the
way in which central/local relations are constructed or the way
in which local government should work.
322. Is it going to make a piece of paper smoulder?
(Professor Stoker) I think that potentially the freedoms
in relation to capital funding, if they come out in one formula
rather than the other formula, that is more freedoms for local
authorities to borrow based on their own judgment, that would
be helpful. I think some of the other proposals in relation to
greater discretion over charging, the Business Improvement District
proposals, etc., are all helpful things but I do not think the
Bill as it stands is going to be the Bill that we all look back
at and say "that was the Bill that regenerated local democracy
or local government".
323. Therefore, what you are saying too is that
there will be no fundamental change in the actual relationship
between central and local government?
(Professor Stoker) I do not think the Bill marks that
Sir Paul Beresford
324. Is it worth the effort? Should they just
wave the flag and say "This is the intention" because
that is all they are doing really?
(Professor Stoker) I think if you are faced between
a small step and no step at all then I suppose I am always tempted
to say "Let us take the small step".
325. In both your opinions do you think the
Bill perhaps relies far too much on secondary legislation and
(Mr Travers) To be fair to this Bill and this Government,
this is non unique to this Bill and this Government but there
are undoubtedly sections or parts of this draft Bill which give
the Government very wide powers either under the primary legislation
or, for exampleI highlighted in my memorandum, as I understand
it and I am not a lawyerthat the whole of the operation
of the new formula grant is contained in a single line which effectively
says "The option of the grant is what is contained in the
regulation". I know that has to go before Parliament but
there is no doubt that this draft Bill would allow the Government
to do very significantly different things within the terms of
what is on the face of the Act when it becomes an Act, yes.
Sir Paul Beresford
326. The reality is that the power, the muscle
of this Bill, will go through in an hour and a half on an SI upstairs
above the main chamber, no press, no-one seeing it, just local
authorities catching the back draft?
(Mr Travers) I think there are parts of the legislation
which will be of that kind but, again, this is part of a wider
issue for Parliament, it seems to me, because it is not unique,
to be fair, to this Bill or this Parliament.
(Professor Stoker) Can I simply add that I am sympathetic
with Tony's line of argument. I think we should be a little bit
willing to say that it is good that the draft Bill has been produced.
It may well be that some of the lack of detail reflects the fact
that it is a draft Bill.
327. It would be reasonable, would it not, before
Parliament approves it to have the draft regulations as well?
(Professor Stoker) Absolutely.
(Mr Travers) Yes.
328. How urgent is it that the Bill becomes
(Mr Travers) If I can take my theme from Gerry Stoker
here. As this is a long way from emergency local government legislation
to correct serious problems, I do not think it is that urgent
but as a sign of Government intentand as I say this effort
on the Government's part to try to release a bit of power in its
own termsit would be better, certainly, that the legislation
went through in the next parliamentary session rather than being
delayed to the one after that.
(Professor Stoker) I think I have indicated already
how I feel about the Bill. I think it would be a small helpful
step but it is difficult to say that it is a matter that would
be in my top three pieces of legislation which I think we need
in this Government.
329. Would it be true to say that you are not
terribly enthusiastic and excited about this?
(Professor Stoker) I think you could say my opinion
is close to lack of enthusiasm, yes.
330. And Mr Travers?
(Mr Travers) I used the word "war weariness"
in my memorandum to describe the wider problem that any discussion
of local government now tends to be war weary because over the
last 15, 20, 25 years we have lived through staggering levels
of local government reform affecting structure, finance, functions,
often again and again and again. There is a risk that we all think
nothing can ever be done, this is the best it can ever be.
331. If it is your Bill, you are the Minister,
you are preparing it, is there anything missing that you would
like to see added or any additional amendments that you would
like to see made?
(Mr Travers) The trouble is if I answer this question
in the way I am going to you will ask me exactly what. If it were
my Bill it would be rather more radical than this one.
332. Would that be ten more clauses on different
topics or would it be a much more radical approach to the clauses
that are already there?
(Mr Travers) For myself, Chairman, I think it would
be a more radical look at the whole position of local government's
place within the constitutional arrangements of England within
the UK. There is a very good case for such a review given that
as a country it appears that we are about to embark on major regional
reform which will have knock-on local government reform consequences.
I think in a sense for a country such as the United Kingdom, or
England within the UK and Wales doubtless separately, to consider
the question of how national government, regional government and
local government fit together and what their respective financing
and service arrangements are we are probably at a time now when
rather than iteratively doing little bits at a time there would
be a good place for such a review.
(Professor Stoker) I would add three things. One is
I think that, as I have already said, I would like to see a much
wider range of small scale but nevertheless worthwhile tax and
charging opportunities available to local authorities. To break
from a principle of simply having one main tax at your disposal
would be really helpful in terms of giving local authorities a
sense that they can control their own destiny at least to some
degree. I would like to see on the face of the Bill a much more
radical commitment given to those authorities that really have
demonstrated over the last few years that they are effective performers,
probably some of the most effective performers in the whole system
of public administration that we have got, that they can be trusted
to get on.
333. Would you like to give us a couple of names?
(Professor Stoker) Authorities that have done that?
(Professor Stoker) I would have argued we could choose
Middlesbrough and we could choose Kent. Those are two authorities
which have the management in place and have demonstrated capacity
over the years who should be allowed to get on with it, but I
do not think I would restrict it to those two. The third thing,
it seems to me, is in a way rather like the White Paper did, which
is rather than kick most of the arguments about elections, politics
and the way politics is constructed at local government level
into touch, the Bill does not really deal with any of those issues
at all. I do not think by any stretch of the imagination we have
got local politics right yet. The reason why we keep on returning
to oversight and regulation is because people do not trust local
politics and until we can construct a local political system where
people say it is legitimate, engaging, then we are perpetually
going to be in a cycle where Central Government is asking themselves
"what degree of freedom can we give to local authorities?"
The reason why you do not have that conversation in other European
countries is because people believe that local politics works
in those countries.
335. Knowing that Mr Travers has indicated that
he believes the Bill to be a modest step that needs to be built
upon and extended, and you agreed you are not very enthusiastic
about the Bill, how would you like to see the provisions of the
Bill built upon and extended? Something to capture our imagination.
(Mr Travers) I think with the legislation as it now
stands, to be honest, Mr Cummings, it would be difficult to make
one or two small changes to this small Bill to turn it into the
kind of bigger reform that I think personally I would prefer to
see. What I would say is that given this legislation as it is
I would be happy if I thought as we moved from the draft Bill
to the final Bill and then into legislation that the provisions,
as it were, for the prudential rules and arrangements under capital
finance and for Business Improvement Districts and elsewhere in
the legislation where there is a move in the right direction,
were codified and made more visible and, as it were, brought forward
into primary legislation and built into primary legislation rather
more than they are at present. I think that is the way I would
Chairman: On that note, can I thank you both
very much for your evidence.