New Clause 34 — Executive arrangements: move to alternative arrangements

Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 7:45 pm on 22nd May 2007.

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'(1) The Local Government Act 2000 (c.22) as amended as follows.

(2) For section 33(5) substitute—

"(5) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision for or in connection with enabling a local authority which is operating executive arrangements to operate alternative arrangements in place of the executive arrangements.".'.— [Alistair Burt.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

No. 133, in clause 40, page 23, line 32, leave out 'specified in subsections (2) to (5)'.

No. 141, page 24, line 14, leave out subsection (6).

No. 135, in clause 42, page 25, line 31, at end insert—

'33ZA Changing governance arrangements

(1) Any local authority in England may submit a scheme of internal governance appropriate to its circumstances, which shall stand deferred until the next ordinary day of election and may not take effect until the day after that day.

(2) Where no recognised group has overall control, it shall be competent for the council to implement other arrangements as it may determine.'.

No. 136, page 26, leave out lines 4 to 10 and insert—'A local authority in England which is operating alternative arrangements may—'.

No. 137, page 26, leave out lines 13 to 18.

No. 138, page 26, leave out lines 23 to 25.

No. 139, page 26, line 28, leave out from 'arrangements' to end of line 29.

Government amendment No. 12.

No. 142, page 27, leave out line 44.

No. 140, page 28, line 9, leave out '33A' and insert '33ZA'.

Government amendment No. 213.

No. 143, page 29, line 19, leave out 'or elected executive'.

No. 144, page 29, leave out line 23.

No. 145, page 29, leave out from beginning of line 44 to end of line 2 on page 30.

No. 146, page 30, line 3, leave out 'or elected'.

No. 147, page 30, line 7, leave out from 'executive' to end of line 8.

No. 148, page 30, line 11, leave out from 'mayor' to end of line 12.

Government amendments Nos. 214 and 215.

No. 149, page 31, leave out line 19.

Government amendments Nos. 216 and 217.

No. 150, in clause 43, page 32, line 22, leave out 'an elected executive,'.

Government amendments Nos. 13 and 14.

No. 151, in page 33, line 1, leave out clause 45.

Government amendment No. 15.

No. 152, in clause 46, page 34, line 17, leave out from 'mayor' to end of line 18.

No. 153, in clause 47, page 34, leave out line 29.

No. 154, page 34, line 30, leave out 'other'.

Government amendments Nos. 16 and 17.

No. 155, in clause 49, page 35, line 2, leave out subsection (1).

No. 259, in page 38, line 1, leave out Clause 51.

Government amendments Nos. 18, 218, 222 to 225, 57 and 226.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

I shall do my best to be brief. New clause 34 stands in my name and that of my hon. Friend Mrs. Spelman and a number of other colleagues. The Bill has generally been consensual, but now the rubber will hit the road: we now need to ask the Minister to choose from some of the issues at the heart of the Bill.

Committee members will remember a champagne moment when the Minister, having been chided for being over-centralist, stood back from the Front Bench and said, "I want to be devolutionary; let them choose." That was a moving moment and, as we have seen in Committee and in the Chamber, he has in limited respects been open to allowing people to choose, but not on executive arrangements. I have three particular concerns to raise, and as I suspect that a couple of other Members want to speak I shall do my best to be brief.

Local freedom is a key issue. At the heart of our debates on the Bill is an issue that we have discussed intermittently during its passage: whether it is truly devolutionary. The Bill provides an acid test. Local decision making is key to local government. The Government are right that local authorities need to have good, clear, effective and efficient leadership, but it must be local. Our principal complaint with the Bill is that the Government are being prescriptive in having a limited number of models for efficient and effective local government. We simply pose this question: why?

Do the Government truly trust local government to deliver? The Minister has made much of the progress of local government over the past 10 years, which he claims is due to the targets exerted by Government, but which local government feels owes much to its ability to respond.

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Local Government & Community Cohesion), Department for Communities and Local Government

I and my ministerial colleagues always acknowledge the three factors that have led to improvement: the hard work of councillors and officers; the extra resources provided by this successful Government; and the performance regime. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges that.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

I am pleased that the Minister took the chance to respond to that. I am sure that he would agree that a key factor is the ability of local councils to have responded and to have worked hard.

This is where the issue of trust comes in. Our contention—and that of many Committee members—is simply that the Government should not be so prescriptive. Do they truly trust local government? Have lessons been learned from 20 years of central direction to cure various ills in local government, and from local government's response to that? Now is the time to let local councils choose what model of leadership they want.

There are serious penalties if councils get things wrong. The electorate is increasingly sophisticated. The Minister said recently that it is increasingly hard to discern national swings in local elections. He is right. One of the things that is interesting about local election results nowadays is that councils get thrown out of office for poor performance no matter what political hue they are—and no matter what hue are the Government of the day. Councils know that there are now penalties if they get things wrong. So why cannot we let local authorities choose what executive model they think suits them best?

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman and I agree that it is not for the Secretary of State to prescribe matters in such detail. However, I am puzzled that the hon. Gentleman's new clause 34 gives all the power to the Secretary of State to prescribe, and if he or she chooses not to prescribe, not to do so. That is an internal paradox in the new clause.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

No, what I am doing is using this new clause as a symbolic way of opening up the possibility of a variety of alternative arrangements being available to local councils. We could move a series of new clauses; I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has had the opportunity to go through all the amendments in this group. We have chosen this one to be a key new clause, and it allows us to raise the possibility of alternative arrangements, and we intend to press it to a Division.

In Committee, we raised the growing risk of separation of the people from local and national Government, and the sense that their vote now counts for rather less than it used to. The Local Government Association supports our amendments and agrees that local councils should have more say in which executive arrangements best suit them. Therefore, my first point was about the need for greater local freedom.

My second point is that the prescriptive models used do not allow the opportunity to go for some form of revised committee system. I ask Members to note that I did not propose that we go back to the old committee system. We seek to give authorities who so desire the opportunity to go to a modernised and revised committee system.

Photo of Dan Rogerson Dan Rogerson Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that some authorities, such as North Cornwall district council in my constituency, have never moved from that committee system. What proposals does he have for councils that feel that the arrangements are working well for them?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

It is a fortunate council, but the vast majority of councils have had to move from that system. We wish to enable those authorities that want to retain such a system to continue with the alternative arrangements for as long as they wish. That is contrary to the determination of Government; they would sooner or later close down that option.

Sir Peter Soulsby was particularly forthright in his contributions in Committee. For example, he said:

"I do indeed recall the strengths of that system as well as its weaknesses. I am convinced that those strengths can be used to produce a reformed committee structure and a system that would enable the leadership and accountability that we have all said we would wish local government to deliver." ——[Official Report, Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Public Bill Committee, 20 February 2007; c. 457.]

He is right. Committee members of different parties expressed the same sense. We could not quite understand why the Government were so adamant about closing down the option of a revised committee system.

In the spirit of the debates that we have had, I urge the Minister to think again when this Bill passes to another place, and to listen to councillors who say that the change from the committee system has disfranchised a number of back-bench councillors who want more to their role than just scrutiny. They want to deliver more. Councillor Phyllis Gershon of Bedfordshire county council—I am delighted to have had the chance to mention Bedfordshire, as it has not been included in the place-naming during the course of the evening—has persistently told me that councils need that option. It should not be forced on them, but it should be an option for them. I ask the Minister: why be so prescriptive?

My third and last point relates to elected executives. The Government will not allow councils the option of a revised, modernised committee system, which many councillors have mentioned, including the council leaders who came to brief the Committee. Members of the Committee have also spoken about it. However, the Government are prepared to press heavily for elected executives, although we cannot see any evidence that anyone wants them. We pressed the Minister on that in Committee: where are the examples of the public, or the local government fraternity, clamouring for the opportunity to deliver elected executives? The Minister was not able to enlighten us. I therefore humbly suggest that local authorities will not pick up on that option. I cannot see why he should be so keen on that option, but not on a modernised committee system. Several of our amendments deal with an elected executive and, had there been more time, we would probably have pressed an amendment on throwing out the elected executive option. Instead, we will probably press to a vote the general amendment on clause 34 that I mentioned earlier.

Those are my three points—local freedom is being denied, the committee model is not provided as an option and elected executives are being given the thumbs up by Government when nobody seems to want them. In the spirit of the Bill, which is supposed to be about a listening Government, we have given the Government an opportunity not to be prescriptive. They have not taken similar chances in the past, and that has marred the Bill, but this is an opportunity for a champagne moment. The Minister could say, "We have listened to you, you've got it right, and we'll give it up."

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley 8:00 pm, 22nd May 2007

I of course endorse everything that my hon. Friend Alistair Burt said, but I speak in support of amendment No. 259, in my name. It would delete clause 51 and the time limit for holding referendums. Clause 51 states:

"A local authority...in England may not hold more than one referendum in any period of ten years".

It also says that the clause

"applies to referendums held before, and referendums held after, this section comes into force."

It seems to me that the clause has been put in specifically to deal with what might be described as the Doncaster problem.

The elected mayor in Doncaster is very unpopular and has become a bit of a laughing stock. The residents of Doncaster have put together a petition, with the necessary signatures, to have a further referendum on whether to scrap the mayoral system in the area, much to the embarrassment, no doubt, of the Labour party in Doncaster and of the Government, who have tried so hard to push the mayoral system in this country. This clause appears to be a cynical attempt to prevent the good people of Doncaster from being able to get rid of their mayor. I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm—if he will not accept my amendment—that the people of Doncaster, who have gathered the thousands of names on the petition to get rid of the mayor—that has been endorsed by Doncaster council—will not be prevented from having a referendum to get rid of their unpopular mayor. I hope that the Minister will address that point when he winds up.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was in his place for the beginning of this debate, so I shall call the Minister.

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Local Government & Community Cohesion), Department for Communities and Local Government

This debate has, not surprisingly, repeated some of the points that were made in Committee. I shall try to answer some of the questions that have been raised. I acknowledge the limits to devolution that the Bill imposes and I shall try to convince the House of the justification for them. The Government believe that those limits are in the best interests of local government and sustainable communities.

I am glad that the main point—that the Bill is devolutionary—is broadly accepted. Last week, I cited the words of my right hon. Friend Mr. Raynsford, a previous Minister with responsibility for local government, that change in local government finance was a marathon, not a sprint. Change in the power relationships between central and local government, and local government and its communities, is, if not a marathon, at least a 10 km run. It should certainly not be done in haste, and it is important to build consensus.

The second principle is that in devolving powers, the Government—and, I suggest, Parliament—have a responsibility to do so to structures and functions that can take responsibility on behalf of the public. The logical consequence of the argument of the devolutionist without any catalyst is that local areas should be free to choose their own form of local government. I think that there are limits and I shall explain what they are.

Our arguments are not just based on opinion; there is substantial research to back up our points. Indeed, I will shortly publish a paper entitled "Does Leadership Matter?", including research showing that the two main current models of executive arrangements—directly elected mayors and leaders with cabinets—demonstrate benefits in visibility and accountability and the streamlined focus for decision-making that is needed in modern local government. I do not base my arguments only on that report, of course, because the House has yet to see it. It will be published shortly, but there is further evidence that has already been published.

It is true—the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire put the argument in Committee—that the best leaders can be successful in any system. The argument of some who propose elected mayors often relies on the example of New York in recent years, but they fail to point out that New York went bankrupt under a system of elected mayors. It does not logically follow that the structural system for governance of local authorities necessarily provides strong leaders. Neither does the opposite follow—there could be a complete shambles and strong leaders emerge from that—

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Local Government & Community Cohesion), Department for Communities and Local Government

The hon. Gentleman mentions my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and I would agree with him. We were in a bit of a mess and my right hon. Friend did come and sort things out. God bless him for that. There are only four or five weeks left before jokes about public schoolboys can become part of our debates again without any embarrassment on our part. I am looking forward to that because I am told that there are five old Etonians in the shadow Cabinet—[Hon. Members: "Only five!"] That is just Eton—you are frowning at me, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I was merely wondering where this was going, and I suspect that it is further and further away from the new clause.

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Local Government & Community Cohesion), Department for Communities and Local Government

I am desperately trying to sustain the argument, with little success, that the structure of local government has a relationship to the strength of leadership, but is not a causal effect. My argument is that the arrangements we have suggested are more likely to lead to such circumstances.

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Local Government & Community Cohesion), Department for Communities and Local Government

I will of course give way to my hon. Friend, as she represents Stoke, which has a unique system.

Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Labour, Stoke-on-Trent North

I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend's remarks, but Stoke-on-Trent is in a category all of its own, because of the system of a council manager and an elected mayor, and that was mentioned specifically in the White Paper. Can he reassure me that arrangements are in hand to enable us to proceed with the promised commission so that in Stoke-on-Trent we can reach our own decision on how to proceed at the next local elections, which will be relevant to finding a way forward?

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Local Government & Community Cohesion), Department for Communities and Local Government

My hon. Friend once again takes the opportunity to promote the case for Stoke-on-Trent, and I commend her for that. Only two local authorities in this country present separate cases. Stoke-on-Trent is the only one to have adopted the elected mayor with the city manager model, and that is different from the one in Doncaster to which Philip Davies referred. In addition, the council in Brighton and Hove also has separate arrangements. The commission is going ahead and announcements will be made shortly about Stoke-on-Trent, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her support in that process.

Of course, there are caveats. Just as other councils face restrictions on what they can and cannot do, if the commission proposed to create a kibbutz for governance in Stoke-on-Trent I would not accept it. However, on a more serious note, the answer to the question poised by my hon. Friend Joan Walley is yes, very definitely. Part of my argument is that Stoke-on-Trent needs that model of governance, but it has its limits.

I am not making a cause and effect argument. The evidence is that the most likely improvements are made when strong executive arrangements are in place.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

What makes the Minister think that the models that he has chosen this time will have a higher ratio of success than last time? He has already said that the Stoke model had not succeeded, so why does he believe that central direction is essential to the process?

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Local Government & Community Cohesion), Department for Communities and Local Government

First, in Stoke, Doncaster and elsewhere it is important that we separate the office holder from the office. The hon. Member for Shipley referred to a petition in Doncaster. I am not sure what it has to do with him as Doncaster is not in his bit of the county, but he asked a question and I shall answer it. The petition relates to the position of the mayoralty, but we must separate that post from the person who occupies it. If an electorate want to remove a mayor, they can do so at the ballot box, but separate arrangements govern changing the office, as I shall explain later.

I shall lay out some of the evidence that I hope will convince Andrew Stunell. It is generally accepted by local authorities that the new arrangements have, on the whole, led to some improvement. For example, a recent survey of councillors and officers showed that 71 per cent. believe that leadership by executive councillors has had a positive impact on the performance improvement in their authorities. More than half of councillors and nearly three quarters of officers believe that the new arrangements have made the executive more effective in articulating the vision for their area.

What is important is that, through the new arrangements, the Government and Parliament are asking local authorities to take on more responsibilities in their work with other public sector agency partners and with the private and voluntary sectors in their areas. Sir Michael Lyons described that role as "place shaping".

I know that the hon. Member for Hazel Grove accepts that the process of devolution and decentralisation is about more than devolving responsibilities to local government. It is also about devolving those responsibilities from Whitehall to the other public sector partnerships in a local area. That is why the public's requirement for strong executive leadership goes beyond the council itself and includes services across their area.

Secondly, to complete the jigsaw, this Bill builds on the arrangements for overview and scrutiny put in place by previous legislation. Those arrangements cover the work of the local authority and all public sector and other organisations in the delivery of local government services. Indeed, this Bill brings health and local government closer together.

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt PPS (Rt Hon Hilary Benn, Secretary of State), Department for International Development

I agree with every word of the last couple of paragraphs uttered by my hon. Friend the Minister, and that is why I believe that this is such a good Bill. Throughout the debate, we have acknowledged that it extends the range of choices available to local authorities. It does not do so universally—sometimes the range is extended in some directions more than others—and we have argued about that previously. However, does he agree that the provisions under discussion extend the choice available to local authorities in such a way that they are able to find the best direction for governance locally? Ironically, given what we have heard this afternoon, would not new clause 34 reduce the options available to councils?

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Local Government & Community Cohesion), Department for Communities and Local Government 8:15 pm, 22nd May 2007

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Ironically—although perhaps it is not so surprising—we are having a topsy turvy debate. The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire claims that his proposals would benefit devolution, even though they do not. To be fair to the hon. Member for Hazel Grove, his proposals do promote devolution, although I think that they go too far. However, we should not be surprised at all that: the Conservatives are centralists, while the Liberal Democrats are devolutionists without responsibility. I guess that explains where we have ended up. I must try to rebuild the consensus that I have been crafting so carefully for the past two years and which I may have destroyed in the last 10 seconds. This debate has revealed the divergence of view between the Liberal Democrats and the main Opposition party, whose proposed new clauses would reduce the range of choice that the Government are offering.

Neither I nor the Government claim, as the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire suggested, that councils are "clamouring" after the elected executive model. I readily concede that they are not.

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Local Government & Community Cohesion), Department for Communities and Local Government

They will be clamouring for it in the future, of course, but the serious point is that the idea for directly elected executives came from local authorities themselves. Given that that model meets the criteria of providing a strong leadership model with clearer visibility and accountability, it would be wrong to rule it out. My problem with the old committee structure, and with most of the enhanced committee structures that I have seen in practice, is that they do not provide clear leadership. I think that the changes in the Bill will get the balance right.

Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government)

I very much appreciate the Minister giving way. He said that directly elected executives had the support of local authorities—that is, in the plural. The LGA told us in evidence that one local authority supported the idea, but I discovered subsequently that that evidence had not been discussed in the council before it was submitted. What other council shares that point of view and thus justifies his assertion that local authorities, in the plural, supported the directly elected executive model?

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Local Government & Community Cohesion), Department for Communities and Local Government

I did not say that local authorities supported that model, but that the idea had come from them. That is a different matter, but the answer to his question is embodied in the strong executive and Liberal Democrat leader of Cornwall county council. I could also speak about Stockton, Durham and elsewhere, but the serious point is that the idea has support in local authorities that cover very large geographical areas. There, the traditional system of making up the cabinet from divisional ward members requires huge amounts of travel, often for short meetings. In part, the idea of the directly elected executive arose from the geography of those areas—but, hey, let us not worry about that. If the people in those areas want to pick up that option, they can; if they do not, they do not have to.

Photo of Louise Ellman Louise Ellman Labour, Liverpool, Riverside

Does my hon. Friend accept that although strengthening executive powers as he suggests has certain advantages, it may increase the alienation of back-bench councillors? Is he concerned about that?

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Local Government & Community Cohesion), Department for Communities and Local Government

One important argument about the benefits of the old committee system is that it brought experience to so-called back-bench councillors, or front-line councillors as many people refer to them, but I believe that the overview and scrutiny process that is now embedding provides that experience. The process can increasingly involve not just scrutinising executive decisions but making recommendations and reports, rather as our Select Committees do, and crucially it does so across the public sector, not just in the institution of the council. My second argument, with which I hope my hon. Friend will agree, is that we are kidding ourselves if we think that the old committee system did not involve an executive; it had a hidden executive—the chairs of the senior committees were, ipso facto, the executive of the council. Our model offers a better way forward.

To the first point made by the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire—let them choose—I say, yes but within limits. The hon. Gentleman's second point—that the revised committee decision-making system should be a matter for local councillors—does not, I fear, meet the new statutory framework that the Bill puts in place. On clamouring for elected executives, the hon. Gentleman has a point, but let him give me a champagne moment: let them have it if they want it and we will not worry about it. Perhaps we could call it the Burt system.

The hon. Member for Shipley made a point about Doncaster. I emphasise the fact that his point related to the office holder, not to the office. Our argument for a 10-year period is a fair one because we want a balance between devolution and stability, and a four-year mayoral office could be bedevilled by the threat of a referendum—I use the word "threat" deliberately—often inspired for mischievous purposes. Of course, the public have the right to reverse the decision and the principle enshrined in the Bill is that the method by which an executive arrangement was chosen is the method by which it can be replaced. The evidence is that the mayoral models are improving the situation in those areas—

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Local Government & Community Cohesion), Department for Communities and Local Government

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but I could take him to Torbay where the Conservative mayor is doing a good job. The idea of having a mayor was opposed at first, but it is now embedded. The model might not suit neighbouring councils in that region or elsewhere, but we have made a change that is delivering improvements in local areas.

Photo of Khalid Mahmood Khalid Mahmood Labour, Birmingham, Perry Barr

Under the Bill, the right to petition for a referendum will be taken away and councils will decide about whether to have an elected mayor. In Birmingham, the local authority does not want an elected mayor but, as my hon. Friend knows, a huge campaign for a petition has been mounted by the Birmingham Evening Mail. What will happen in such communities?

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Minister of State (Local Government & Community Cohesion), Department for Communities and Local Government

My hon. Friend raises an important point. The Bill does not take away the right of the public to raise a petition to bring about a new executive model; it enhances the power of the council to take that decision, should it so wish—not as an alternative to a petition, but in addition to that right.

With those arguments, I ask the House to resist the new clause and to vote for the Government amendments.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

I am grateful to the Minister and I have listened carefully to his arguments, but we intend to press the new clause. It is not good enough to reject a model that many Members and many councillors think valuable and to persist in including an option that no one wants. Given the points we have made about local freedom and local desire to choose, it would be best to allow the fullest possible opportunity for councils to make that choice, so I commend the new clause to the House.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 129, Noes 305.

Division number 125 Orders of the Day — New Clause 34 — Executive arrangements: move to alternative arrangements

Aye: 129 MPs

No: 305 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly negatived.