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Baroness Hamwee: I am grateful. Some of the comments which the Minister has just made provide something of a lead into the next group of amendments. I am not proposing to push the matter further at this stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Baroness said: In moving this amendment, I shall also speak to Amendment No. 6 which is grouped with it. These amendments are about proportionality and political balance. As regards the last group of amendments the Minister commented on decisions now being taken by leading members in small groups in private without the opportunity for scrutiny. I entirely accept that that is the way in which many council groups operate. However, having taken a decision in private, there have to be public meetings. Members of the public and the local press can attend such meetings. At those meetings there is a chance for opposition councillors
It was said to me by one of my colleagues in local government that the only good thing that the Conservatives did for local government was to introduce proportionality on committees. The Widdicombe recommendations were enacted in 1989. It has occurred to me that that period is less than the aggregate of the eight years plus four years proposed in this Bill for experiments. In other words, we have not had 12 years in which to assess practice under the Widdicombe arrangements although I regard them as important and successful.
I will be the first to say that there are huge dangers of complacency in a large council group or in a group which has no opposition at all. The chair of the Local Government Association, Sir Jeremy Beecham, went on record quite early after the formation of the LGA in lamenting the virtual absence of Conservative councillors in the big cities. I share the concern about our system not reflecting voting patterns and producing overwhelming, imbalanced councils. What use would there be in a better political spread of councillors if the minorities are excluded from decision-taking?
I believe that the rights of minority parties are the rights of the electors. They are expressing concerns of a group of electors. As we see ourselves on these Benches, they provide at the very least constructive opposition, which sometimes might be outright opposition. However, very often it is constructive opposition. That is especially the case under electoral arrangements which are based on the first-past-the-post system. That means that the number of councillors elected, as we all know, is not an accurate reflection of the political preferences of the voters--certainly not of the political preferences that might be expressed--if there were a system which allowed them to express their preferences. The current system means the opposition councillors and voters are locked out. Opposition councillors have a role in contributing to decision-making and to hold the majority administration to account.
We shall talk later about access to information. I accept what has been said about record-keeping and about the ability of members, and indeed the public, to have access to local authority records. However, the question of access is more than just a matter of being able to look at the papers after the event. It is a matter of how one can use one's position effectively. It is about, for instance, the opportunity to question officers of the authority through the chair of the committee; the opportunity to have real freedom of information and, as I have said, the opportunity to play a full part in the decision-making process.
In the mid-1980s, a colleague, Councillor Chadwick in Sheffield, was involved in a case following his exclusion from certain of Sheffield Council's operations. His need to know was supported by Mr. Justice Woolf, as he then was, who said:
Baroness Miller of Hendon: The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has spoken ably about Amendments Nos. 2 and 6. Unfortunately, I have been suffering terribly today with nosebleeds so, rather than stand here and risk an accident, I shall be very brief and say simply that we support the noble Baroness in these amendments.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, is soon well. We shall all understand if she suddenly leaves the Chamber and we shall not take offence. Perhaps I can be of some comfort to her. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, was most unkind and unfair when referring to the previous government's record with regard to local government. They did many things of great benefit. I cite as an example the abolition of the poll tax.
In speaking to these amendments, it may be helpful if I refer to the fact (in the interests of getting it on the record) that already in local government there is the opportunity for delegation to a committee, from a committee to a sub-committee, and from either the main committee or the sub-committee to an officer. The process of onward delegation is already being practised in local government.
There may be many arrangements in local government that can be allowed under the current legislative framework which could turn out to be more effective than the existing arrangements within a particular local authority, both in terms of accountability and the quality of the decision-making which results. I stress that we are talking about "enabling" as opposed to "imposing" an opportunity for innovation.
One model would be where there is a clear executive body drawn from the majority party which is subject to open criticism and review both by the other members of the authority in the same party group and by those from the opposition parties. It is a model used throughout the world in both central and local government, not least our own parliamentary system. I am aware that the use of the "cabinet system" by majority parties has not always been supported by opposition or minority parties. It would be a shame if we got to a point where a particular concern being expressed by those who happen at a particular time and in certain authorities to be the minority ruled out experimentation with the system altogether. I can think of authorities which are controlled by the party of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, which have an executive committee model which, I understand, is a single-party executive committee. I may be wrong. If I am, I shall be interested to know and am open to correction.
I stress the importance of having a range of opportunities for innovation. Both the Government and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, have already made it abundantly clear, both this evening and in the draft guidance produced by the Government and placed in the Library of the House, that it will not be acceptable for
Lord Hunt of Tanworth: I have already stressed that the purpose of this Bill is to enable local authorities to experiment with a wide variety of arrangements for taking their decisions, but not at the expense of proper, effective or open government--indeed, the intent is quite the opposite. I am as keen as the next person to ensure that there is the appropriate political balance in a committee where this is necessary. But there is a wide body of opinion from all areas of the political spectrum which would wish to allow local authorities the option of taking decisions within structures where the executive arm was not necessarily in line with the political balance of the membership of the authority.
At one level, a model such as a single-party executive committee is just reflecting the reality of what currently goes on in local government in authorities of every political colour. The majority group will typically come to a decision and then it will be debated by the full council. Sometimes the line can be agreed by unofficial meetings of the few leading players within the majority group. A number of the majority party may have had little or no influence in the decision, but would still be required to vote for and defend it.
However, a model which brought such unofficial meetings within the formal decision-making structure of the authority and provided for access to the necessary information and scrutiny of the decisions taken would enable officers to advise the policy-making process within the formal structure of the authority and could lead to an enhancement of local democracy and to better decisions being taken. A requirement that the membership of all committees of the authority should reflect the political balance of that authority would, in my view, work against the opening-up of the decision-making process. The real decisions would still be taken behind closed doors, outside the authority's committee structure.
I do not argue for this particular experimental model as my preferred option. I merely point out that many authorities would like to adopt such an experiment and that, if implemented correctly, it could improve local democracy. I stress that all the experiments possible under this Bill must be most carefully designed and implemented. In particular, it must be right that the
However, I do not accept that there are sufficient grounds for concern for experiments which include committees which do not reflect the overall balance of the authority to be excluded from the options available for temporary experiments under this Bill. It may be that some authorities, particularly (but not exclusively) those with no overall political control, would wish to experiment with executive committees which do reflect the political balance of the authority as a whole. I would welcome such experiments. But experiments with single party executives could be perfectly valid in other authorities. I therefore believe that the amendments moved by the noble Baroness would overtly constrain the room for experiment which this Bill seeks to give to local authorities, and I cannot support them.
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