Local Government Bill [H.L.]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:01 pm on 6th December 1999.

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Photo of Baroness Thomas of Walliswood Baroness Thomas of Walliswood Liberal Democrat 8:01 pm, 6th December 1999

My Lords, I begin by apologising to the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, for not being present to hear his maiden speech. It was clearly extremely effective; a number of people have referred to it in tones of great admiration. I look forward to reading it tomorrow in Hansard.

At this rather late hour, with 23 speeches behind me and, I believe, another nine ahead, I shall do my best to be brief. I am aided in that because I agree so thoroughly with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, about Section 28 that I do not need to spend any time on it. I shall therefore concentrate on Part II of the Bill and its effect upon councillors--a subject which was touched on also by the noble Lord, Lord Woolmer.

When one reads the Bill and listens to some of the people who have been promoting it--to use that controversial term--one has the feeling that they do not believe that anyone has ever thought about changing local government before. There are many Members of your Lordships' House from local government who know that that is not the case. There has been continuous change in local government, certainly during the whole of the 12 years that I was in it. Other noble Lords have served in local government for far longer than I have. I see the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, who is the classic example of a long-serving councillor, nodding in his place.

It is not true that local councils have been inhibited by legislation from being innovative. That is simply not the case. The question is rather what sort of change one wants to achieve. In my experience, the best lever for change was the shift of the authority of which I was a member--Surrey County Council--to no overall control. As far as I could judge, the people who benefited most from that were not the minority parties, because they were used to working as a group and treating each other as equals, but the non-leading members of the majority party. They suddenly found themselves of great importance in the running of the council and were treated as such for the first time by the clique which had previously run the county council. That was my observation, although members of that group might have disagreed with me.

Yet it seems to me in reading the Bill that the reinstitution of a clique to run all the decision-making processes of the council and the policy-making processes, as several interventions have made clear, is one of the features of the Bill. Ten people, perhaps one more or less according to how the judgment is made, will take all the decisions in the council. I must say that that reminds me of Surrey County Council when I first joined it.

That concentration of power has been one of the roots of bad governance--I shall put it no more strongly than that--in some of those Labour authorities which have been so severely criticised, and quite rightly, over the past few years. The more power is concentrated, the more it can be abused. The noble Lord said it rather more clearly than that. All power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. I am not suggesting that the executive arm of local authorities as envisaged by the Bill will have absolute power, but they will certainly have a great deal of power. The dangers are plain.

Do we really want change which, once instituted, cannot be modified again in any serious respect without a referendum? In the old days we were able to change the structure of the committees and the way in which local authorities carried out their work. I shall refer to one of those major changes, which was typical of Surrey as of other local authorities, in a minute. We were able to do that and we were not impeded by the cost. For example, it is quite an expensive business to run a referendum. It involves all sorts of rules and regulations which no doubt will be spelled out for us in the Bill.

One of the changes which we and others undertook was based, in our case, on what was at the time I joined the local authority an almost unique local partnership committee or series of local partnership committees. We conducted part of our highways role via partnership committees between the county council and those second-tier authorities which were district councils. Those committees, of one of which I was a member, were in fact decision-taking committees within the overall ambit of council policy. After the review of local government of rather unblessed memory, we responded, as did many other authorities, to the justified criticism by the commission that county government was becoming too remote from its citizens and we instituted a series of decision-taking partnership committees with the local authorities, boroughs and districts which formed the second tier of the two-tier authority.

In the Joint Committee's report, reference is made both to area decision-taking committees, which are quite common in urban boroughs and in some cities, and to that particular form of local decision-taking committee which occurs only in two-tier authorities. As far as I am aware, the Government have not responded to that element of the Joint Committee's report. They have responded to the local decision-taking committee in the urban areas, but they have not responded to the two-tier type committee to which I am referring. I should like the Minister to respond to that point, if he can, because I believe that it is an important one; it is a good example of partnership and so forth.

Again, from listening to people talking about the Bill one would think that no one had ever thought of partnership, of accountability or of trying to make the decision process more transparent. One would have thought that that was being presented as something new to an astonished world. I can assure anyone who believes that that is the case that it really is not. Long before the Bill was written and, indeed, before the Government were elected, such matters were the driving force which persuaded local authorities to scrutinise their own procedures and make them more effective, more responsive, more open and more in tune with local demands.

I turn now to the role of local councillors in the new system. I support all those who have expressed the fear that there will come about a real division between those councillors who carry out scrutiny in the council and those who carry out decision-making, with most power, as I say, concentrated in the latter. Indeed, they will have not only most of the power but most of the interest as well. After all, people join local councils partly because they are bashed around the head and neck by their friends and political colleagues. They are told, "Please stand. We can't get anyone to stand. You must stand". They reply, "Well, I'll stand so long as there is no chance that I will get elected". Then they are elected and suddenly find that a local authority is fascinating.

People who are elected in that way often become extremely good and devoted councillors. The reason for that is that the job responds to people's desire to act and to get things done for their local community and for individuals in it. I do not see how that particular aspect of being a local councillor will be satisfied by this Bill. I believe that there will be far too many back benchers who do not have that thirst for power and decision-taking and even policy-making. Far too few have a thirst for those things. Reference was made by a previous speaker to the unfortunate situation in which a member of a school governing body was afraid of being found in that situation as a result of the new arrangement because he no longer had direct access to the decision-making part of the council that he used to have. I believe that that is a serious matter. Before the Bill goes into Committee, and preferably tonight if possible, I should like the Minister to respond to that point. I believe it is a concern which has surfaced in a number of speeches from different sides of your Lordships' House.

I believe in a real change and modernisation of local government. I believe in a local government which has the power of local taxation and independence of action--by that I mean independence of central government, even to the extent of being allowed occasionally to make a mistake. That is something which all governments of all colours increasingly have become unwilling to countenance. I should like to see them backed by PR for elections, which presents the easiest way for voters, first, to kick people off the council, because relatively small shifts in votes will achieve that, and, secondly, to defeat the pretensions of any party, whichever party it is, to create and maintain a single party governance in a local government organisation.