Local Government Bill [H.L.]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:20 pm on 6th December 1999.

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Photo of Lord Harris of Haringey Lord Harris of Haringey Labour 5:20 pm, 6th December 1999

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, with whom I have worked so closely on London local government matters. It is also a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Smith of Leigh, whose maiden speech made an important contribution to our debate. It demonstrated the value of the experience that he brings to the Chamber.

First, I declare an interest as a London borough councillor for the past 21 years; as a member of the executive of the Local Government Association; and as the current chair of the Association of London Government. During my time as a councillor, I have seen a decline in the standing of local government, but that decline is not just a phenomenon of the past two decades. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Hattersley, in a splendid written evocation of his youth, records:

"At the end of the war, the counties and the county boroughs were responsible for hospitals, police, water and a major part of the welfare budget, which was appropriately enough called 'local assistance'. Some of them generated electricity and distributed what came to be called 'town gas'".

Clearly, there has been a reduction in the size of the responsibilities and powers of the local authorities since the halcyon days described in his article. But I believe that that reduction has contributed to the decline in the public's view of local government, the turn-out in local elections and the willingness of people to put themselves forward for election.

The profile of local councillors is in no way representative of the population at large. There are some 25,000 elected local representatives, setting aside for the moment the 70,000 parish and local community councillors. Of those, only 27 per cent are women; a mere 3 per cent are from minority ethnic communities; and only 38 per cent are employed either full time or part time. The average age is 56. I have to admit that I find it a sobering thought that after more than two decades as a councillor I am still 10 years younger than the national average. I suppose that that makes me a representative of youth in local government, but I am not sure that I should be recognised as such by many young people.

That situation cannot be allowed to continue. Indeed, how can councillors truly represent their communities if they are not part of that community and reflect that community? So it is important that we give serious thought to encouraging more of our young people and more ethnic minority residents to participate in the democratic processes and to stand as councillors. And, of course, the same is true for women in order to equalise the gender balance.

We have to prove that being a councillor is a worthwhile way to spend your time; that what they say can influence decisions and bring changes; and that the community will benefit from their involvement. We can do that only by making changes to the way local authorities work; by stressing the representational and representative role of local councillors.

Let me put that in context. Hitherto, much time has been spent in a round of unproductive committee meetings. Concerns about this are nothing new. In 1967, the Maud Committee commented:

"The [committee] system involves the production of increasing volumes of paper ... which often overwhelms members ... [and] ... discourages the type of person ... who is prepared to give time to the consideration of major issues but who is not prepared to spend it on matters which specialist staff should deal with themselves.".

When I first saw that quotation, I thought that it was from the latest government White Paper. The words must be saved on the word processor and appear in a slightly changed form every few years. Despite the condemnation in 1967, the system has changed hardly at all. By 1990, the Audit Commission produced a report entitled, We Can't Go On Meeting Like This, and followed it up with a further report two years ago which concluded that under the committee system:

"too much of a burden is placed on councillors, often unproductively, by committee meetings which focus on detailed issues."

And, more importantly, it stated:

"the degree to which councillors have been supported in developing other aspects of their representational role (aside from committee work) is limited, so an opportunity for councillors to have a stronger voice on behalf of local communities is being missed."

What is more, as far as concerns the general public, the arrangements have been opaque and obscure. People assumed that the real decisions were being taken elsewhere and usually they were right to think so. This was as true of Conservative councils as it was of Labour and it is applied just as much to Liberal Democrat administrations as to councils where no party had overall control.

I listened with great interest to the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, speaking fondly of the emergency procedures in his local authority when he was involved. I could not help feeling that he was describing an arrangement under which decisions were being taken rapidly behind closed doors and the reasons for them and the forum of their discussion would not have been apparent to members of the public.

The Bill provides an alternative model: one where decision-taking is clearly located and where accountability is explicit. By encouraging local councils to adopt an executive/scrutiny split, the Bill addresses some of the problems with the existing arrangements. This should be positive for the image of local government and may begin to lead to an improvement in the level of civic engagement by the public at large. By cutting down on otherwise pointless meetings, the role of individual councillors is enhanced as more time will be available for them to carry out their representative role in their local communities.

The Government have emphasised that both the executive and back-bench roles of councillors are vital to the health of local democracy. The executive role will be to propose the policy framework and implement policies within the agreed framework. The role of back-bench councillors will be to represent their constituents, share in the policy and budget decisions of the full council, suggest policy improvements and scrutinise the executive's policy proposals and their implementation. Incidentally, I thought that the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, suggesting that somehow it would be the end of the Bill when it came to a review and scrutiny committee putting forward a policy proposal, reflected a misunderstanding of what is proposed.

Suggesting policy improvements and scrutinising policy proposals is central to the role of the overview and scrutiny committees outlined in the Bill and it is very different from making the decision. It creates a process which will allow much more flexibility of thought and is much less likely to lead to a particular viewpoint being pushed through by a majority party without significant discussion.

In the same way as the Select Committees of your Lordships' House and of another place can raise issues, can challenge orthodoxy, can perhaps criticise the majority party of government and can certainly recommend improvement, so, too, can the overview and scrutiny committees clarify the position and explore the implications of proposals within a local authority. Those proposals are contained within the Local Government Bill.

At first, most of the discussion and emphasis was placed on the introduction of directly elected mayors to UK local governments for the first time. That is important, but less attention has been placed on the newly-defined and regularised role of the executive outlined in the White Paper, first, to translate the wishes of the community into action; secondly, to represent the authority and its community's interests to the outside world; and, thirdly, to build coalitions and work in partnership with all sectors of the community, and bodies from outside the community, including the business and public sectors.

This is all about community leadership; a new and important concept which enhances local democracy. While government are not perhaps proposing a return to the heady days described by my noble friend Lord Hattersley, it is clear that the new power to promote the economic social or environmental well-being of a local authority area, contained in Part I of the Local Government Bill, gives much greater freedom. It may not be a power of general competence, but it enables councils which wish to go beyond the narrowly-defined limits placed on them by statute so to do. That is important in terms of giving body to the role of community leadership.

I want to move briefly to the role of the back-bencher. Clearly, back-bench councillors will be spending less time in council meetings. Therefore, they will have more time to spend in the local community, at residents' meetings or at surgeries. They will therefore be accountable in a direct way through encountering their communities on a day-to-day basis. They will be strong local representatives for their area. They will bring their constituents' views, concerns and grievances to the council through the council structures. Their role will be to represent the people to the council rather than to defend the council to the people.

In effect, they will be able to offer community leadership at a ward level and relate to their communities in a positive way without having to bear the responsibility or blame for the day-to-day decisions of the executive. That is an extremely positive and valuable role for all involved.

All in all, those changes are fundamental. They are part of a true modernising agenda which will bring about a fundamental transformation of the roles of elected members, of the status of councils and councillors as community leaders and in the way in which local authorities take decisions. That is not some cynical rearrangement of the deckchairs on the Titanic, but an opportunity for local government to renew itself as a reinvigorated champion of the communities it represents.

I therefore welcome the Bill. However, I should like to mention a number of specific points where it could be improved. First, I have already indicated that the new power is welcome. It would be even more welcome if Clause 2(3) required local authorities also to have regard to the achievement of social inclusion in the area and to the importance of harmonising race relations and achieving equal opportunities in the area. Secondly, like the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, I should like to see maximum flexibility in terms of options for the executive/scrutiny split. Thirdly, I welcome the arrangements to pay allowances and pensions to local authority members. I trust that that will extend to all members and not only to those who happen to sit on the executive.

Finally, I cannot close without referring to Clause 68. I was a member of my local authority--although not at that time its leader--when it was at the forefront of debates on the matter in the mid-1980s. I remember well those discussions and I believe that Section 28 was introduced to set up an Aunt Sally. It was set up to attack local government, in particular Labour local government, which at the time did not much need to be set up as an Aunt Sally because there were plenty of other issues on which it could be criticised.

However, I believe that Section 28 was set up to do exactly that. It attacked a mirage; something which was not happening. In my local authority an extremely lengthy, learned and detailed report was presented to the council. It was entitled, if I remember correctly, Mirrors Around the Walls. It was about recognising the position of individual young people who are perhaps uncertain of their sexuality--an issue referred to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford--or are children who are not part of conventional families in the sense that most of us would understand.

I find some of the comments which have already been made extraordinary. I listened with interest to the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Young. She talked about the clause being "slipped in". There has been debate and discussion about the repeal of Section 28 for a number of years. It has clearly been government policy. She referred to Section 28 as being an enormously important piece of legislation. I do not believe that it is so. As a piece of legislation it has never led to a successful prosecution. It is a piece of legislation that was extremely badly drafted to make a political point a number of years ago. It was extremely badly drafted because it is difficult to define what "promote" actually means in that context. It was badly drafted because it was clearly about education, but it related to local authorities rather than recognising the position in terms of schools, the role of governors and the role of teachers.

The most worrying part of that badly-drafted piece of legislation is that it creates a climate of fear and uncertainty. The extent of the lack of clarity as to what it does or does not cover has meant that initiatives which would tackle homophobic bullying and the uncertainties and difficulties of young people coming from non-conventional families have not been implemented. Teachers, governors and local education authorities did not know what could or could not be done without falling foul of that particular provision.

The Government are right to repeal that section. I am delighted to see Clause 68 included in the Bill. It is not something which has been "slipped in", but enhances the Bill. The Bill is important because it presents the opportunity to renew local government. It presents the opportunity to renew the role of local authority councillors. The inclusion of Clause 68 is important because it renews the opportunity to ensure that those issues are addressed properly and appropriately--not to promote homosexuality, but to ensure that young people are clear and that they are advised and counselled accordingly. That is why I am such a clear supporter of this piece of legislation.