Local Government Bill [H.L.]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:47 pm on 6th December 1999.

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Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Party Chair, Liberal Democrats 6:47 pm, 6th December 1999

My Lords, many noble Lords may be grateful to hear that I do not intend to mention Clause 68 other than to say that I support my noble friend's comments and those of others; namely, I support the repeal of what has been an unnecessary law which has caused difficulties.

Like many others I wish to make some general comments about local government and then concentrate on the style of government and housing welfare support services. Many of us have reminisced today but that is probably because many of us are here as a result of our past experiences in local government and in life.

Over 30 years ago as a newly qualified teacher I settled in Southampton. The school in which I taught provided every young person with their own textbooks in the subjects that I taught; namely, geography and maths. The grounds and the buildings were well cared for and our exam results were good. City buses regularly took children to the fairly new swimming baths to give every child the opportunity to learn to swim. Buses also took us to concert workshops with the local Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Our chief education officer was well known nationally. Local people appreciated the good local services and, whatever the political control, Southampton council aimed for good quality services, particularly decent housing, and good education and public transport. There was great interest in local elections and in what the council was doing. The well-known, sometimes rather colourful, movers and shakers in the community tended to be members of the local council.

I am possibly painting a rather over-rosy picture, but the reality today is that if one talks about local government it is not that kind of picture that comes to people's minds. Life moves on, the world changes, and institutions have to change. In looking back, I am aware that many of us in the Chamber who have been involved in this area have failed to value and safeguard much of what was and has been good in local government. Most of all we have failed to value the democratic role of local government as a building block for our national domestic democratic institutions.

For me, the test of the Bill is how much it will do to put back some of the cornerstones of our local democratic society--a society so very different from the one I have described. No longer can people read daily in their newspapers full accounts of what is happening in their council. As other noble Lords have said, often people no longer know the names of their local councillors and their local leaders. As we all know, no longer do many people even bother to vote.

Many noble Lords have expressed a desire for things to change. Many in your Lordships' House have expressed concern that although the intention of the Bill is to address some of these issues, some of us--I count myself among them--share concerns about whether it will do so.

As has been said, the Bill opens with a section which gives more power to local councils, particularly to promote the economic, social and environmental well-being of their areas. I am not ashamed to say again that, although we on these Benches welcome this, our policy is that it would be very much better to give a power of general competence. Here the power to promote well-being is very specifically limited. As has been mentioned, it does not allow authorities to raise money by precepts borrowing or other methods for any of those issues.

The power to promote may sound very good in principle but it is still quite restrictive in practice. For example, it will facilitate partnership working on economic development and on home energy conservation, which I particularly welcome, but it does not give the freedom for local authorities to act.

I listened with interest to the noble Earl, Lord Carnarvon, who is no longer in his place. I was particularly interested in what he was saying because, when I heard of his background, I realised he has probably voted money for books in my school many years ago. He made a comment about the powers of the Secretary of State and not enough power in the areas that we all want to change being left in the hands of local authorities. It is always disappointing to see how many extra powers are given to a Secretary of State when new legislation comes forward. I shall not bore your Lordships with them all, but I have particular concern that Clause 6 allows the Secretary of State to,

"suspend, disapply or repeal any enactment ... which requires a local authority to prepare ... any plan or strategy".

Having piloted through this House and another place the Home Energy Conservation Act, which was about preparing plans--and to which your Lordships agreed--I should like the Minister to reassure me that that area will not be repealed by the Secretary of State under this legislation.

Turning to the arrangements for executives, several models have been put forward. Like other noble Lords, I hope that the Minister will come forward with other models--but not only models put forward by the Government. Experiments have been going on in local government and I hope that if amendments come forward they will reflect local communities' ideas about how we can run local government and how the structure should be set up.

I do not quite understand why the Government and the Local Government Association together are so against local councils being allowed to maintain some of their working practices, particularly if people feel that they are working satisfactorily. As other noble Lords have said, if we are to have cabinet forms of government it is important that we have scrutiny. The crucial part of the new arrangements will be the relationship between the cabinet and the scrutiny committee. In broad terms, the greater the power given to the cabinet and the fewer checks there are at cabinet level, then the stronger the scrutiny function needs to be.

Local government reform offers the possibility of bringing about a great cultural reform in local government--the breaking down of the tribalistic loyalties often seen from back bench councillors. This matter has been touched on by other noble Lords. A strong scrutiny role can give great power to councillors, just as in another place and here the Select Committee system has given great power--particularly in another place--to Back Bench Members. As we have seen over the years, party loyalties get put aside on Select Committees, which have delivered some fairly damning criticisms of government policy. The big test is for scrutiny committees to develop that kind of independence.

Whatever a local authority decides to set up, it has to put its plans in a referendum to its local communities. I am very interested that, although this is about modernising local government, on the face of the Bill councils are required to put in the newspapers whatever model they take up. There is no mention of the web or any other kind of modern technology. I hope that that matter will be examined during the passage of the Bill.

Clauses 64 and 65 are only two clauses in a 73-clause Bill. However, they deal with matters which have consequences for a very large number of the most vulnerable people in our society. I refer to support services.

The Bill will affect quite a number of areas, some of which have already been mentioned: sheltered housing, community alarm schemes for the elderly and vulnerable, foyer schemes, supported housing for people with learning disabilities or physical disabilities, supported housing for people with mental health problems, probation hospitals, women's probation hostels, women's refuges and other hostels that provide support. The Local Government Association and I are concerned as to how these matters will be dealt with. I hope that we will be able to discuss them during later stages of the Bill.

Shelter seems to think that grants, rather than payment through housing benefit, may be a better system. Perhaps the reason that some people in local government and myself are concerned is that however well-intentioned the Government's plans for block grants to go to support services, some of us have seen how that has worked out in practice in the past. That may be why I and other members of local authorities are concerned about the Government's proposals. As the Bill progresses, I hope that we shall be able to address those matters more satisfactorily.

In conclusion, there is much that we do not yet know and there is a great deal of bureaucracy in the Bill. I wish that the Government trusted local people and local councillors a little more. Councils could then be given the right to have general competence and we could have a fair voting system. That would have meant spending a deal less time than we are going to have to spend trying to improve the Bill.