I want to make three points. The first is about the codes of conduct and the abolition of the Standards Board. I, like many local councillors at the time, was the subject of numerous referrals to the Standards Board. The first that anyone heard of it was when they received the letter from the Standards Board saying that it had decided to take no further action on the vexatious complaint. It could take many months and, in certain cases, years before a complaint was determined one way or the other. In cases that were chosen for investigation, the investigations could take the length of a councillor’s term of office before it was decided whether they were guilty.
I have concerns about what is being proposed. I completely agree with having a national standard for the codes of conduct that local authorities should impose. There should be national standards and everybody should abide by them, even though they will be monitored at a local level. There is a key concern about how valid complaints will be investigated. I have a concern about elected councillors overseeing complaints about other elected councillors and about how politicians might seek to gain party political advantage over one another through standards committees. The concept of having independent individuals in charge is of course welcome. However, the risk is whether such people can be found for every local authority and whether they will be of a suitable standard to make the system work. I have concerns but, broadly speaking, the Government’s amendments should be welcomed.
My second point touches on the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Zac Goldsmith on referendums. The key concern is about the difference between a local authority consulting the people it serves and it being bound by a referendum, possibly on a single proposition. I do not think that local authorities in this country consult properly. Instead, they notify the public that they will do something to them, regardless of what they think of it.
I will give an example from a local authority on which I used to sit. The London borough of Brent has decided to close half its libraries. The council put it to the public and 82% of people said that they did not like it. The answer from the council was, “We’re still going to do it.” That was the result of a consultation. The idea was overwhelmingly rejected, but the council are progressing with it. That would be a case, like my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park described, in which a referendum would undoubtedly go against what the local authority wishes to do. However, that does not change the fact that local authorities are elected to serve and to make decisions. They should do so even if those decisions are not liked by the people whom they represent.
I will also cite the case of Bristol, which several years ago conducted a referendum on the level of council tax to be charged. The council put four options to the people of Bristol: a reduction in council tax with a drastic reduction in services; a marginal reduction in council tax with a marginal reduction in services; a stand-still option; or the council’s preferred option of an increase in council tax and keeping services at the same level. Lo and behold, the people voted for a substantial reduction in council tax and a substantial reduction in services—not quite what was expected. One has to be careful in taking on a referendum. For the purposes that I have described, a referendum is clearly not the route to follow.
Equally, as I have said in interventions, if we had referendums with a trigger of 20% or 30% of people signing a petition, that would not necessarily work if the turnout for such a referendum would be far too low. That would be ridiculous and would impose on local authorities an unfair basis for making decisions. As we all know, it is easy to get people to sign a petition, but it is another thing to get them to vote. Clearly there is a role for petitions in consultations, but using them to trigger referendums is difficult.
My third point relates to the position on council tax. I have always been an advocate for councils being free to set council tax at the level they choose. If councillors choose to impose a swingeing increase in council tax, the public have the right to vote them out at the next election. We should trust the people to do that. I have always been stringently opposed to the capping of council tax or previous forms of local taxation, because it takes away the decision-making powers of local authorities. Councils should not have referendums held over their heads on council tax, but people should have the power of the ballot box to remove councillors who vote for a swingeing increase. That is the right way to protect people.
Most local authorities in this country have their councillors elected by thirds, so the local electorate has the power every year to remove councils and councillors who choose to vote for large increases in council tax. In unitary authorities, there are all-out elections, which means that councillors, having been safely elected, can take decisions at the beginning of their cycle to get their betrayal out of the way before they face the threat of the ballot box three or four years later. Perhaps we need to re-examine the governance of local authorities and ask whether they should face more frequent local elections, rather than having periodic elections when the decisions made by the local electorate are often more about the national Government of the day than the decisions that are made at a local level.
Having spoken about those three key issues, I will conclude my remarks. I warmly welcome the amendments proposed by the Government.