Local Government Bill [H.L.]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:50 pm on 6th December 1999.

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Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Liberal Democrat 5:50 pm, 6th December 1999

My Lords, I somewhat regret that I must follow the noble Lord, Lord Waddington. I wish to address my remarks in particular to the modernisation of local government. However, the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, tempts me to stray into what I believe is a small area of the Bill. My two daughters sometimes sit in the public gallery to listen to your Lordships' debate. I believe that had they been here this evening, they would have been asking themselves where some noble Lords get their information from. From their experience of the playground, they see that bullying is very much an issue which needs to be dealt with.

I turn now to the Local Government Bill. We have heard that it is a fundamental and renewing Bill. I do not believe that those descriptions are entirely accurate. I believe that it is an evolutionary Bill which takes a small step towards improving local government.

I heard the Minister's remarks when he introduced the Bill and I hope that the recommendations of the Joint Committee will be incorporated. Their incorporation will mean that structures become more flexible. At present, the Bill still includes some features which have made local government less than desirable in the public perception; namely, a small clique of people, meeting in private, who make decisions which are fundamental to public life. If the Bill continues to retain the executive's ability to meet in private, then that public perception will scarcely change.

I should declare an interest as a county councillor for Somerset and as a former district councillor. As such, I cannot understand why councillors fear meeting in public. Sometimes it is more difficult when the public hear the debates which are held and, of course, sometimes groups meet beforehand. But it should be possible to debate in public most decisions which are made. Some noble Lords may say that I am an idealist to expect that that should be so. But I worked within a system in which debates--and sometimes heated debates--were held in public and conclusions were reached. The public believe that to be a satisfactory way in which to conduct business.

In particular, I wish to address the role of area and partnership committees. Those are not yet contained in the Bill although I understand that the Government look favourably upon them. The area committees of which I have experience are based on a natural geographical area. The councillors for the area meet in public with the public able to ask questions on all matters concerning the area. In relation to social, economic and environmental well-being, such a committee--a scrutiny committee or whatever-- would be extremely powerful. It would be extremely important in terms of community planning and enabling communities in the area to address what are described in the jargon as cross-cutting issues. In the past, committees have concentrated far too much on, for example, housing while disregarding planning and environmental health issues when all those issues are fundamentally entwined. Area committees have been successful in many authorities. I am extremely anxious that they should be allowed to continue, to build on their strengths, and to receive great community support. They enable communities to understand what local authorities are trying to achieve for them.

I turn now to partnership committees--a different animal. I believe that the Bill has been drafted with unitary authority areas very much in mind. Partnership committees address the need for district and county councils to work together. Some measures provide that executive decisions can be made only by one local authority or another. If the Government's agenda of best value and community planning is to be achieved, those committees must be not only encouraged but enabled to delegate decisions, if the executives of those authorities agree, to a partnership committee. In that case, areas such as waste collection and disposal and planning in its broadest sense--issues which cut across the work of both authorities--can be considered jointly by those authorities, with budgeting provisions being made by the two of them together. In that way, we should avoid the rather messy situation left behind by the last government, who failed to address the Local Government Commission's initial brief which was to rationalise the structures of local government so that the public could understand it.

I have some fears that under the Bill as drafted the executive and scrutiny split will be extremely divisive. The situation may arise that the opposition members are placed in charge of scrutiny while the executive members are a ruling group. If so, the old game of political football will then ensue. One of the reasons that the public are so turned off local government is that they see that that game of political football is being played at the expense of addressing local issues.

It may cause difficulties in relation to the natural progression of councillors, who are elected to represent their communities and who enjoy doing so, to becoming members of the executive. It may encourage the career politician rather than the community leader. I am sure that that is not the intention of the Bill. But it will be important that councils are given help in addressing the problem of councillors moving from the scrutiny to the executive function. Training through the improvement and development agency should be available to all members so that they can make what has been in the past a natural progression; for example, through being a vice-chairman of a committee. When the Government table their amendments, I hope that they will address some of those issues.

Part IV deals with electoral arrangements. The noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, referred to young people being able to represent their councils. I am sure that I do not need to remind your Lordships that people of the age of 18, who are adults, are still not able to represent their local councils. One has to be 21 to stand as a candidate. That is a great shame. Although there would not be large numbers of young people wanting to be councillors, those few who are thus motivated are precluded from doing so, sometimes until they are 24, should their birthday fall at the wrong time.

I have a question to ask on Part V dealing with welfare services and support for the vulnerable. I know that this is a difficult matter. I am closely connected with my local women's refuge and I am concerned about whether the measures will affect the way in which such refuges are funded. I heard the Minister's introduction. At present, such funding is heavily dependent on housing benefit. Those provisions may be extremely suitable for the elderly who are less mobile. But I wonder whether they will be of benefit for those who must move from, for example, shelter to shelter. Perhaps the Minister will say how wide the consultation has been on that issue.

I look forward to the Government introducing their amendments. I look to them to increase flexibility in the structures. With much increased flexibility, the Bill is a small, rather than a large, step towards modernising local government.