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Lord Filkin: I agree strongly with the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, that this amendment is absolutely central to the debate about the Bill, although I differ from him as to the conclusion to be reached.
What is being proposed is a major opt-out clause for those local authorities which do not think it appropriate or necessary to change their structures. Perhaps I may touch on one or two reasons why I think that we cannot and should not support that.
First, it is a slight misinterpretation of the Council of Europe's charter of local self-government to imply that local authorities in the rest of Europe can choose the fundamental structures of their political arrangements. They cannot. They are either set within their constitutions or determined by federal or national governments. The local authorities in the different La nder in Germany cannot decide how they structure themselves. That is set by a higher authority for obvious reasons.
Secondly, the argument that is put that many local authorities are already embracing the need for change is true. It is impressively true on a cross-party basis. Authorities of all political complexions can be found to demonstrate acceptance of the need for change that emerged slowly following publication of the White Paper on local government modernisation and developed through the Bill piloted in the summer.
One cannot grossly generalise but there is a sign that many of the better authorities--I think of Herefordshire, Sutton, Kent and Hertfordshire--are already moving positively towards recognising that they want to, and will make, those changes. The thrust of the argument is that those not wishing to do so should be allowed that freedom. That is flawed. We are not talking about a situation where local government in England is seen as being in sound health, having strong public confidence and the confidence of the government of the day, whether the current Government or previous ones. That is not the case. There has been a major failure of confidence and leadership.
In the late 1980s, the Audit Commission pointed out that the way local authorities conducted their business through the committee system was long-winded and often a sham because decisions had been made elsewhere, led to virtually no scrutiny in practice, and was due for reform. That was revisited some six years later, and it found that nothing whatever had changed.
It is not as if this is an unannounced form of change. A lot of preparation has taken place in relation to this change and, as we shall debate later, there is considerable scope for variation. The current law only allows one option. The legislation, if passed, will allow for a substantial increase in the number of options that, in practice, will be available to local authorities. Therefore, if we as a Committee are in favour of a strengthened system of local government, with stronger scrutiny and no longer having decision-making taking place in a sham system but in one in which decisions are properly challenged through a vigorous process, we must not allow opt-outs to take place in the way proposed.
Lord Hanningfield: I speak in support of the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith and in support of what the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has said. Come this May I shall have been in local government for 30 years--in a large authority, Essex County Council, as was my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith, so we have something in common.
During that time, the situation has changed immensely. The structure or the processes in Essex are nothing like they were 30 years ago. Every two or three years we have changed our structures and we have looked at our committee system. We have tried to speed up our decision-making. I would be one of the first to admit that sometimes in local government we are not quick enough in coming to conclusions or decisions. Often that is because we want to discuss matters and to consult the public further. In local democracy there is nothing wrong with that.
I am concerned about the executive arrangements. Since the White Paper was published, I have looked at several other systems throughout the world. There are several such executive models. I have looked at New Zealand and the United States and I know a lot about what happens in Europe. Where there is an executive system, there are fewer councillors. In Essex we have 79 councillors, all with large electorates. My own electorate comprises nearly 20,000 people which is almost as big as some parliamentary electorates. To have an executive of 10 would perhaps mean that the other 69 could have a scrutiny role, but they would not have an effective role in running the county council. That is just not on!
The United States has executive arrangements. Fairfax County, south of Washington, is similar to Essex. It has over 1 million people and a budget similar to that of Essex County Council. It has an executive, but only 11 elected members form the executive. That system works well for that county in the United States.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said the geographical situations of councils can be so different. Essex has an electorate of 1.5 million, but large rural districts in Northumberland have far fewer people. How can it be said that there should be one or two systems for those different situations? It would be most restrictive. I disagree totally with the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, that there would be more options. We have many options now. We have, as we should have, a diverse system of local government.
I support elected mayors. I am in favour of elected mayors--if people want them--as I believe that they provide a good system. I also support an executive where appropriate. However, in certain places it is just not appropriate, so we need another option.
As vice-chairman of the LGA, which is all-party, I travel around the country all the time, and I have never found as much unhappiness and unease as I have about the description of the executive system--the cabinet system--in authorities that do not want it. The Government have to give a bit. They should not alienate all local government members. I urge the Government to think again and to accept the amendment.
Baroness Hanham: I support my noble friend's amendment. I have a number of major concerns about what is proposed for the executive system, but the one that is most relevant--it follows on even after I look at the guidance produced--is the fact that most of the decisions made in local government under the executive system will be made by one party, and made in secret. There is no way of getting round that. The power is there for the executive--indeed, it is almost a diktat--to allow decisions to be taken by individual members, in private, and those views will only be able to be scrutinised by the scrutiny committee if it is able to call in those decisions before they have been implemented.
There have been suggestions that in the current system councillors are not really making decisions at all. But is that correct? At the moment we have a committee system whereby all councillors are involved in some way or another in making--some would say in rubber-stamping in some councils--decisions in the open. If the public decide to come to those meetings, they can do so and see how and when those decisions are made and what is said. That will not happen. It does not happen everywhere. It does not happen now where those executive arrangements have already been implemented. I believe it was Widdicombe who changed the system whereby decisions could be taken in secret and said that they had to be taken as far as possible in the open. We have all followed that advice ever since.
This is a major problem in relation to the executive system. As my noble friend Lord Hanningfield said, to leave a small number of councillors, perhaps only one-fifth of those on the council, doing all the major work and taking all the major decisions, is not an option that we should allow to be carried through without thinking about alternatives. No system will be perfect. Indeed, the Government said that this system is not perfect, and that is why these amendments are being put forward. But let us not throw the baby out with the bath water; do not let us end up with a system of local government that people do not want to join.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: Members of the Committee have spoken eloquently as to why this Bill is a divisive Bill in relation to local councils. It is divisive because what is being proposed is a false split. The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, said that few councillors will be taking decisions. But in authorities that presently work well, councillors sometimes play a senior role and take the chair in one matter and in another play a more back-bench role.
The amendment will preclude an easy movement for any councillor between those roles. Though we have heard a great deal as to how the system will increase the representational role, there is not yet any evidence of that happening. I am an optimist and believe it may happen. But it is extremely regrettable that we have been presented with a model which will place those representational councillors in what may be seen as a second-class role, though the Government are promoting the matter in a different way.
The noble Lord, Lord Filkin, said the fact that many local authorities have already gone down this road is an indication that they are keen on this model. I think it is more likely that they are keen on embracing change and that they do not want to be seen to be stagnating. However, until this Bill is passed, they are able to experiment with change in a way that they want; indeed, they may do so in an incremental way, as my noble friend Lady Hamwee said.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, pointed out, unless we have PR for local government, this will encourage the one-party state that can meet in secret, behind closed doors. It seems incomprehensible to me that we could be moving from something that was supposed to open up local government and to allow more consultation to a model that allows a one-party cabinet to meet behind closed doors.
We have talked a good deal about councillors in this debate. Many worries have been expressed by officers about this model. They feel that they will be put under a similar strain and that they will be asked to fulfil the almost impossible task of supporting both the executive and the scrutiny roles at the same time. Therefore, because no council will be able to afford or want to employ a duplicate staff, it is likely that those officers will one day have to wear one hat and the next day wear another.
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