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The Earl of Carnarvon: My Lords, I speak for myself, having had some experience of local government and having the honour to serve on the Joint Committee of your Lordships' House and another place under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Bowness. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, who is not in her place at present, were members. The point was discussed and an equivalent amendment moved to which the Joint Committee agreed. However, the Government did not agree with the Joint Committee.
I have always believed that there should be more flexibility. A great majority of local authorities have looked carefully into the matter and are applying the suggestions made by the Government as regards executive and scrutiny committees. (I have the Local Government Association report in front of me.) That is good news for the Government. But some local authorities want strongly to achieve the aim in a slightly different way.
That is all that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, are saying. The Government should listen to minorities--in particular independent councils--which feel strongly that they do not quite fit into the Government's three "musts". I support the amendment.
There is concern--the Government have put it forward--that electors should be more attracted to voting in local government elections. It is perfectly proper that that should be so; we all want to see it happen. However, the other side of the coin is that
People may want to become councillors because, first, they wish to serve their local community, and, secondly because they believe that it is proper that representatives should make decisions on behalf of that community. The proposals disfranchise more than half of any council from making decisions. Only those who are ultimately in the executive will make the decisions on behalf of a council.
No amount of overview, scrutiny, discussion and debate constitutes a decision. They are not binding on any group. A group can agree to decide on all manner of things but until the decision is made by one of the executives it is not a decision. I believe that many councillors will find this a very serious loss. Many individuals will believe it to be a real drawback from coming into local government to represent and make decisions on behalf of their local communities, after consultation. One can talk endlessly but at some stage decisions need to be taken, and taken in the open. We have discussed that previously. The Bill makes allowance for doing so. It must be right to allow people to decide.
There must be a mechanism within the Bill to enable local authorities to say, "We would like our members in total to take the decisions". I have heard all the arguments about it being a mere blind: that decisions are taken in back rooms before any issue is discussed in public. That is not a scenario I recognise. Many local authorities take decisions after discussion in committee. In my local authority we are often swayed by points put forward by the opposition; and decisions are then made.
Lord Filkin: My Lords, as a novice, I shall try to resist the temptation to recycle what was said at previous stages, but I want to make one or two points. I remain concerned that in our distractions there is a danger of missing the wood for the trees.
First, the Bill does not seek to enforce elected mayors on all parts of Britain. It is impossible for there to be elected mayors anywhere, even if the councils were in favour of that, unless the public vote for it. Secondly, there is no expectation in anyone who is realistic that a simple, single Bill can restore local democracy. I am confident that if it were that simple, the noble Lord's party would have passed such a Bill some years previously.
We need to recognise that there is a problem: the public have lost interest in local government. They by and large value the services of local government, but they do not believe that its political processes are particularly relevant or meaningful. They say so frequently and act so by choosing not to vote in local government elections.
If we choose, we can say that there is no problem and that the status quo is fine. However, I am convinced that the consequence of failing to modernise local government in a sensible fashion will be the progressive residualisation and marginalisation of its functions. During the past 20 years, we have seen that all central governments are prone to that disease.
Therefore, we must look at the central thrust of Part II of the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, is right in saying that it is central to the whole debate. The question is whether the existing committee system serves the public well. We have heard the criticisms of it: that the responsibility is opaque; that it undervalues the importance of representation; and that scrutiny is largely non-existent in most local authorities in which that system operates. There are problems which have frequently been affirmed by the Audit Commission. It is not true that the current system is adequate, satisfactory, or universally working well. It often works well because of the efforts of talented members and officers, but that is not because of the system itself.
The impression is being given that there is to be a monolithic imposition of a single system on all authorities across the country. That is untrue. Some of us might wish that there were more of an imposition of the stronger systems of executive governance, but that is not on offer. All that is required is that the local authorities must establish certain principles. First, they must consult their public on their executive arrangements. Secondly, they must make it clearer who is responsible for decision making. Thirdly, they must draw up a constitution which indicates where decision making will take place within the authority and the balance of power that will sit between the executive and the assembly. Finally, there must be a powerful, effective system of scrutiny. Those are the principles which the Bill and guidance set out--no more and no less.
Let us take the example of the non-party shire district council that is frequently talked about. Let us look what it can do. It must consult its public; and it is right and proper that it should do so. We are talking about the public and not about the traditions of officers and members and whether they are comfortable with that requirement. But if after that process of consultation that council decides that it does not want to have a strong executive system, it is perfectly able to establish arrangements in the following fashion. First, it can determine where most policy can be decided and it can put the weight of that determination in the full council, in the assembly itself. It can give only a limited scope for policy determination to the separate executive.
Secondly, it can determine that the executive will be a cross-party or non-party body which will always meet in public and that there will be a strong power of "call-in" to the assembly. In other words, before an issue is implemented, any member can call it in for full debate either in scrutiny committees or into the assembly itself. The executive members would not have individual portfolios, but would have to act in concert. The assembly could meet as frequently as it
In my view, that model would be an improvement on the current system. The public would know that there was a system of scrutiny. They would be clearer about who was responsible, yet the power of the executive would be tightly constrained and trammelled by the assembly. In my view, that is a cause not for fear, but, if anything, for excessively cautious incrementalism. Nevertheless, that is what the Bill offers to an authority, if it so decides.
Therefore, I cannot believe that it is necessary to force the amendment. It is hard to judge the need for it because of the consequences were we to do so. We are not talking about a minimalist escape clause; it goes to the heart of the Bill, as the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, had the courtesy to acknowledge. It would go to the heart of the desire, the necessity, for reform.
Last January, the LGA published research that had been undertaken by Strathclyde and de Montfort universities. It asked councils what were their preferred options. Thirty-nine per cent of councils stated that they wanted neither an elected mayor--fair enough--nor a separate executive. If the amendment were passed, it would undermine the heart and thrust of the Bill. One might say that that is good, but it will not serve the public well if we are serious about trying to move forward local government so that it has more relevance and enjoys more respect.
Lord Hanningfield: My Lords, I agree that we have cantered around the subject a great deal, but I want to support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said that the feeling was strong on this side of the House. I believe that the feeling is strong in local government generally. If we were to survey our 20,000-odd councillors, we would find that barely 10 per cent support the executive/non-executive split. It does more to make councillors uneasy and unhappy with the Bill than anything I have known in my years in local government. One cannot underestimate the strength of that feeling.
There are more than 400 local authorities in this country and they vary greatly: from the small district councils to the large authorities such as Birmingham or my own, Essex County Council. They vary in the number of their members from perhaps 30, to 119 in Birmingham. I do not mind mayors if people want them. Judging by comments made in the past few days, it appears that I prefer mayors more than does the Deputy Prime Minister. I do not mind people having Cabinets, if that is what they want. However, the fault of the Bill is in imposing the executive/non-executive split. People see it as a two-tier system. It is an unnecessary part of the Bill.
Where experiments have been carried out, people feel that they have been excluded. A while ago I attended a meeting at which, unfortunately, my party was in a minority on the council. It had set up some scrutiny committees and every time my members raised an item, the rest of the committee moved for the next business, and we moved on. I believe that small representations of other parties will feel even more excluded. That is the whole thrust and problem of the executive/non-executive split.
It is all very well to be told that it will work better and will increase participation and voting, but it is not seen to be a democratic process. It is seen to be imposing something on local government that should not be necessary. I cannot imagine many other countries or parliaments imposing such detail on local government. I hope that tonight we shall give local authorities a clear message that although we want to see them modernising and moving into the 21st century, we want them to design their own systems best suited to their areas.
In many ways, voting is different in local government elections. Much of the low turn-out is in areas in which one party is dominant. In Thurrock in my county, where the Labour Party will romp in, there might be a 12 per cent turn-out. However, where three parties fight an election keenly, there will be a 55 or 60 per cent turn-out. That is the difference; that is what it is all about; and that is what we need more of. Therefore, I urge your Lordships to pass this amendment so that we can give local government the opportunity to design its own systems.
Lord Hunt of Tanworth: My Lords, I doubt whether it is helpful to say that the longer this debate goes on at the different stages, the more I feel myself being pulled in two directions. I agree very much with what the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, said. Because of local circumstances in a number of authorities--not a large number, but some--I am convinced that one of the proposed executive models would not suit, and that there should be an alternative form. On the other hand (and this is why I am pulled in the other direction), the amendments that we are discussing today, as drafted, seem to provide an escape clause for an authority that should be taking action to reorganise itself. The amendments seem to allow it to escape taking any action.
That is why at earlier stages of the Bill some of us pressed the Government to produce a fourth option. Provided that criteria of efficiency, accountability, transparency and so on were met, due to certain local circumstances that option would allow an authority not necessarily to retain the status quo but to produce a different option not necessarily based on the executive
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