Local Government Bill [H.L.]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:43 pm on 6th December 1999.

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Photo of Lord Smith of Leigh Lord Smith of Leigh Labour 4:43 pm, 6th December 1999

My Lords, with my experience as a councillor for more than 21 years and as leader of a metropolitan council for the past nine years, local government has always been challenging and never dull, whether dealing with the problems faced by ordinary people in their everyday lives or dealing with the changes, some more welcome than others, introduced by successive governments. But I must say that the Bill offers change that is welcomed by local authorities as a whole. The evidence for that statement is the recent survey by the LGA which showed that by 1st October, 87 per cent of authorities had already implemented changes to their political structure; 75 per cent were considering such changes; 41 per cent already had a standards committee; and a further 30 per cent were in the process of forming one.

Local authorities come in a variety of different shapes and sizes, differentiated by location, by their responsibilities, by composition and by their culture, but they should share two overriding responsibilities: first, to serve and to secure, where they have direct responsibilities, the best quality services for local people; and, secondly, to act as community leaders, working with local people, business and other organisations to create a better community. The aim of the Bill is clarity, making it clearer where responsibility lies and making sure that local authorities can perform.

I shall concentrate on Parts I, II and III of the Bill. I certainly welcome the promotion of economic, social and environmental well-being. That will give clarity with regard to the current position of the law, amending the very narrow permissiveness given by Section 137 of the 1972 Act and by the further constraints put on that Act by the Local Government and Housing Act 1989. The law is catching up with the practice in many authorities, which are responding to real local needs. In my authority, we are currently establishing seven partnerships concerning the whole range of our different activities. I can assure the right reverend Prelate that we have set up one on lifelong learning in which the Church of England and other faiths will be fully invited to participate as partners.

By coincidence, last Friday evening I hosted a dinner at my town hall for the first meeting of what we call the leader's forum, which is a partnership of partnerships. It is not just to be a talking shop, although I think that the partnership will develop the community plan, which will be an important part of the judgment of local authorities in the future. We need to work more closely together to change things in concrete ways. In my authority, if I may echo what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, we have already had a business partnership for a number of years. We have merged economic development staff of the local authority with the TEC, Business Link and the chamber of commerce to provide an effective one-stop shop for local business. In terms of health, we are currently creating an assessment centre for old people which will reduce bed blocking and allow a full and proper review of the position and capabilities of each individual in order to assess whether he or she is able to return to independent living. Last week we had the publication of some statistics on health inequalities. They will not be tackled by putting more money into medical treatment. These inequalities can be tackled only by looking at the underlying facts of social exclusion.

Part II of the Bill will make for clearer decision-making. The responsibility for making decisions will be clearer both to the council and to local people. Perhaps I may reassure the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who were concerned about there being two classes of councillor. I think that that concern is felt by people if they do not understand what is happening. I had a busy day last Friday. In the morning I attended a seminar for my own members which tried to explain what the Bill will mean for them. A new and productive role is being offered. There will be lots of things for councillors to do. I refer not only to scrutiny, although that is very important, but to involvement in the future development of the local authority and working in more ways with local communities. We will have a system of special responsibilities, which will enable people to become expert in specific areas and provide a career path so that people can move forward.

In discussing whether we should have elected mayors or leaders in local government perhaps I should declare an interest. I am still the leader of the council. I am willing for such decisions to be taken by local people. However, I think that two factors should be mentioned. First, if we change to a system of elected mayors for some local authorities, there are implications for council staff which we need to bear in mind. The role of chief executive in an authority will inevitably change. We need to understand that. Secondly, if I may say so as a new Member of this House, it is somewhat ironic that as a local authority member I am accused of acting in a 19th century manner when I understand the ways of this House and the other place, which as a result of the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Tanworth, could be defeated by a single voice of objection. There may be lessons that we need to learn about modernising.

Part III of the Bill, dealing with standards and ethics, arises from the third report of the Nolan committee. Despite a number of highly publicised cases, the behaviour of most of the 20,000 councillors and over 2 million council staff has been of the standard that we should expect in British public life. I welcome the proposal to abolish surcharges. However, like the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, I was for a time chairman of the finance committee and they were sometimes an effective stick to wave at people in order to remind them of their responsibilities.

I am pleased that there will be new codes to clarify what local councillors can and cannot do. The declaration of pecuniary interest is important to local authorities but can be taken, given the current state of war, to extremes. Again, to give an example from my own experience, I am appointed by my council to be a director of Manchester airport, because the local authorities of Greater Manchester are all shareholders. But because I am a director that is seen to represent a pecuniary interest, although the position is unpaid. That prevents me from reporting back to my council on the affairs of Manchester airport or offering it advice as a shareholder on what decisions to take.

The new standards committees will clearly be welcome; many have already been set up. The fact that there will be independent representatives should give greater assurance to the public that things can be done properly. The standards boards will also allow for further independent investigation and adjudication. In the interests of justice, a fair and full inquiry plays an important part, and the Bill provides for that. We also need to make sure that justice is achieved with some speed. We shall need to remember that some people who go through that process will inevitably be innocent of the allegations made against them. It should not be necessary to wait for an undue length of time for the process to be completed.

Overall, the Bill commands respect throughout local authorities. It demands detailed investigation in Committee. I ask the House to support it.