Local Government Bill [H.L.]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:36 pm on 6th December 1999.

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Photo of Lord Woolmer of Leeds Lord Woolmer of Leeds Labour 7:36 pm, 6th December 1999

My Lords, I should like to add my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Smith on his maiden speech this evening. Among other matters, this Bill seeks to increase the transparency and accountability of local government processes with two ends in mind: to increase further its efficiency and effectiveness and to raise the level of awareness, interest and involvement in local government. There is much in the Bill, but I shall confine my remarks this evening largely to Part II.

Perhaps I may first reflect on some of the problems that this piece of legislation seeks to address. Often the question is asked: why is turnout so low in local government elections in this country? Why do electors say that they believe there is too much politics in local government? In my experience the electorate has a mixed view of what it wants. Often it says that it does not want a great deal of politics in local government and yet highly respected local councillors find themselves displaced in elections when the electorate votes entirely on political grounds without regard to the excellent service of those individuals. I believe that in their everyday lives people value the work of councillors as representatives of their local communities. I make that observation because later in my speech I shall suggest that, just as it is important to consider the executive/scrutiny split and whether or not elected mayors and others add to the richness of local government, it is equally important to seek ways to strengthen the role and reputation of local councillors. While we look elsewhere in the world at patterns of local government to give us new ideas on how to be attractive to electors, so we should have the confidence about some of the very good things in our own local government. The role of local councillors as local representatives is one of the very good things seen in our local government.

At the outset I pay tribute to the work of councillors and officers who serve their communities through work in or on local authorities. There have been deeply regrettable lapses in some authorities from the normal high standards of conduct to be found generally in local government; and those cases should not be minimised. I welcome Part III of the Bill which seeks to strengthen further the rules of conduct. However, that should not blind us to the unstinting, valuable and valued work of all those involved in local government contributing, as they do, to the well being of their communities, whether rural or urban.

Local government plays an important part in the democratic processes of our country. Any legislation in this area should be judged by its impact upon the health and vitality of local government as a whole as well as upon its efficiency and effectiveness. Central government is neither all seeing nor the fount of all wisdom. I trust that that is the spirit in which the legislation is brought forward and in which its many regulatory devices will be applied in due course.

Changes over the years have brought new challenges to local government and the need for new approaches and processes. Councillors work hard for their local wards and constituents but have faced many difficulties over the years. It is difficult to get joined-up government or action in local communities. The number of employers who will give generous time off for local government work has reduced greatly over the years. The demands of committee work and of work for the local council as a whole have been increasingly pressing, reducing time and energy for the work of councillors in their communities. In practice, despite attention to volumes of paperwork and time spent in committees, decisions in the larger authorities are often rubber stamping proposals for action from officers and from increasingly full time chairs of committees.

Within councils, especially the larger ones, it has often been difficult to develop and maintain strategically driven and coherently implemented policies and actions. The very virtues of having 60 to 100 voices on a council and its committees have at times been a handicap to clarity of direction and resolution in implementation. Faced by the need to get things done, many councils have de facto given a great deal of power to leaders, committee chairs and officers. The consequent lack of transparency and clear lines of public accountability frequently mean that it is difficult for people outside the process to know how or why decisions are reached.

Many local authorities around the country have recognised those problems and have been seeking different ways to improve matters: to help increase transparency and accountability; and to provide a more meaningful and satisfying job of work for those giving up their time to be local councillors. The proactive and positive way in which many local authorities have already responded to the ideas set out in the Government's White Paper Modern Local Government: In Touch with the People demonstrates that the Government have correctly identified issues which need to be addressed.

The distinction between executive and scrutiny functions makes a great deal of sense. It is a realistic view of how local authorities of any significant size seek to work in practice although constrained to a degree by current legislation.

I agree that councils as a whole need to face up to modernisation of their processes; and I believe that local government as a whole understands and accepts that. I hope that the Government will be equally tolerant if the outcome at least for a substantial period does not produce a large number of elected mayors. There is at times a feeling that there is a presumption of the outcome of choice. If choice is truly to be choice at local level I hope that that choice is freely exercised.

A degree of evolution based on a lot of experience may be a preferred way for many councils. In my view the success or otherwise of introducing a clear distinction between the executive and the power of scrutiny, and the success in making the work of local executive representatives more meaningful to those doing the work and to the electorate, hinges more than upon the body count of mayors and leaders.

In establishing the effectiveness, efficiency and attractiveness of a new executive structure many important issues will need to be addressed. What will be the relationship between the executive and the full council of a local authority? How will executive members be subject to recall or replacement, if at all? How responsible will the executives be to full councils as well as to the electorate? The way in which the scrutiny committees operate will be critically important to the success and improvement of transparency and accountability. It is important to ensure that the scrutiny committees and the work of local councils are sufficiently attractive for people to wish to be elected councillors and to wish to take on the position of chairs of scrutiny committees if they do not have the prospect of being on executive committees.

How will the scrutiny committees be appointed to ensure a significant degree of independence of mind in the scrutiny process? How well staffed will scrutiny committees be? Can scrutiny committee staff truly be independent of the general officer structure of their local authority?

Those are important matters if the bare bones of the legislation are to be effective. It is well recognised that councils will need to be trained in new skills if the scrutiny process is to be meaningful. But more than training they will need to be willing to adopt independent and challenging roles and stances.

I was interested in the Joint Committee report and the government response on the subject of "whipping" on scrutiny committees. The Joint Committee and the Government appear to agree that "whipping" in this context is primarily a matter for political parties. Some years ago I was accorded the honour of the freedom of the city of Cleveland in Ohio in the United States. That city had a powerful mayor in the style of the current legislation. The elected councillors at that time were all Democrat councillors. There was not a single member of the opposition party. Yet before the council meeting headed by the mayor, the Democrat caucus still met in private to decide the whip on what they would say or do in public. Therefore, mere form is not always the same as substance.

In order to ensure the best outcome, we need the correct structure of relationships, but we also need a framework which gives real weight and influence to a significant number of elected representatives as well as representatives of the executive. It is important to give weight to the community work of elected councillors. For years, many councils have sought ways of strengthening the focus of elected local representatives, representing communities to councils and councils to communities. It is essential to vibrant local government, where people are involved, that councils as well as executives are not marginalised. Despite the Government's intentions in this and other legislation, it would be possible for that sense of marginalisation to occur. I welcome the statement in the Government's response to the Joint Committee's report (paragraph 2.81) which acknowledges the danger and indicates the view that there needs to be full support for councillors in these various roles.

This is an important piece of legislation. Its effect and impact will be felt across our system of local government. Its implementation will depend on a number of important details yet to emerge. Given sensitivity in that direction, the legislation will produce changes for the better for our councils, for our councillors and, most importantly, for the people whom they serve and represent.