Local Government Bill [H.L.]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:06 pm on 6th December 1999.

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Photo of The Earl of Carnarvon The Earl of Carnarvon Crossbench 5:06 pm, 6th December 1999

My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Smith, a fellow member of a large finance committee, on his speech today. I hope that we shall hear him speak often on the problems of local government. I shall not refer to Clause 68 to which the noble Baroness, Lady Young, has referred. I am sad to the extent that this is a very important Bill, but this particular clause has been hijacked by the media. Interest has focused on Clause 68 and not the real Bill which was considered by the Select Committee of which I had the honour to be a member, together with the noble Baronesses, Lady Thornton and Lady Hamwee.

It is unusual for me to be aggressive to the Government but in this instance I shall be. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, is aware of this because I warned him in advance. I believe that the situation is a disgrace. It was a good idea on the part of the Government to set up a Select Committee of both Houses to consider the draft Bill before it came before the House. I do not necessarily criticise the Government for failing to agree with the Select Committee. My criticism goes to the fact that the committee interviewed a mass of witnesses between June and July and its report was available in August in order to be considered by Members of your Lordships' House. However, I understand that it was only on Thursday afternoon that that report was available in the Printed Paper Office. I went to the office with the Clerk of the Parliaments at three o'clock on Thursday afternoon and it was not there. I managed to get it at home only on Friday afternoon. If this is the new method for handling important draft Bills, it is certainly not the right way to present the matter to this House. I feel strongly about that. I am pleased to see the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, nodding in agreement.

There were 16 members of the Select Committee: eight Members of this House and eight Members of another place, eight of whom were Members of this Government. We were unanimous in our recommendations. Having got my anger somewhat out of the way, I wish to turn to some of those recommendations.

I refer to the structural issues under Part II. We interviewed people for many days, discussing the important issues referred to on page 32. The majority of witnesses argued that the three proposed models were insufficiently accommodating and wished to see further models added to the face of the Bill. The Local Government Association stated that, if it has a criticism of the Bill, it is that it is unduly prescriptive and confines models of local government to three. I very much agree.

In their response the Government say:

"The Committee noted that some authorities believed that none of the three kinds of executive arrangements which the draft bill provided would work in their circumstances. The Committee also noted the power in Clause 2(5) of the draft bill for the Secretary of State to specify by regulations further kinds of arrangements".

They therefore recommended further amendments. What is the Government's reaction as regards the unanimous report of the Joint Select Committee? The Government state:

"The Government does not intend to change the approach of the draft bill in order to permit the Secretary of State by regulations to allow councils to adopt forms of constitution which do not involve a separate executive linked with separate and rigorous arrangements for overview and scrutiny".

Clause 10 of the Bill published 10 days or so ago states:

"An executive of a local authority must"--

I underline "must"--

"take one of the forms specified in [the following] subsections".

Here is the executive telling the locally elected people how they should run their business. Clause 10(6)(b) refers to,

"a form of executive some or all of the members of which are elected by those electors but not to any such post".

I believe that that may be agreed as one of the ways forward.

I have been involved in local government for nearly 50 years. I am in agreement with the idea of an executive. I was vice-chairman of the old Hampshire County Council and chairman of the new county council at the same time as being chairman of the finance committee. Our budget was £1.6 billion a year. We employed 55,000 people. It was an honour and a great experience to run a major authority which stretched between Bournemouth and Aldershot and from Petersfield very nearly to Newbury.

The council worked extremely well; it is working extremely well. It has worked with an executive and a committee system. The Government want to do away with that. The committee system has two major inputs. It enables back-benchers and leaders of the different groups within the authority to work together in areas of special interest. From where will we get new local authority members? Who wants to stand for a local authority when they know that in the first two or three years of their membership they will meet for perhaps five county council meetings a year? With 100 members of the council, 15 will be on the executive and perhaps 20 on the scrutiny committee. What will all the others be doing? They may be on other scrutiny committees. They will not learn about education, social services or the police force. How did I learn about planning? It was by working on the planning committee, finally becoming chairman. After that I became chairman of the County Councils Association Planning Committee. I was then chairman of the South-East Economic Planning Council. I still serve as chairman of SERPLAN, which involves all the local authorities in the south-east today.

I believe that there is a great danger. We saw it when the Select Committee met with two London boroughs which are working on the basis that the Government intend for all local authorities. One back-bench member of a London borough said that he had the greatest difficulty as a governor of his school because he was unable to get in touch with any member of the education committee or the education officer. He knew that as a manager he would be asked questions which he could not answer. He thought that the new approach was a rotten idea. Previously the council had an education committee and he was on it.

Finally, to ask the public about the structure of local government is a very big question. While I was chairman of Hampshire County Council, unfortunately I was eternally on television and attending meetings talking about rates. People wanted to know why we were spending money on education and not enough on roads, and so on. They were interested in the results of the local authority; they were not interested in its structure. Perhaps with better information, and talks at schools about local government, young people may give up some of their time to local government. I very much hope that they will. However, I cannot believe that they will if, for most of the time, they are not involved in any way. I speak about all political parties. Two years ago I visited Bedfordshire County Council. The chairman of the planning committee is not briefed by the planning officer. He is elected on the day because there is no overall political majority on the council. Conservative, Liberal and Labour members are equal.

How will local government work with a scrutiny committee composed of one political party, with a majority party only on the executive? There are many problems ahead. In his reply, I hope that the Minister will tell us why the Government do not wish to allow an authority to set up an executive, a scrutiny committee and some standing committees of the county council on education, police, planning, social services and the like.