Local Government Bill [H.L.]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:48 pm on 6th December 1999.

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Photo of Lord Hunt of Tanworth Lord Hunt of Tanworth Crossbench 8:48 pm, 6th December 1999

My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest as honorary chairman of the Local Government Association, particularly since, prior to the establishment of the parliamentary Joint Committee, I chaired a hearing on behalf of the LGA which took evidence both from local authorities and from partner bodies on the Bill in its draft form. The procedure of having a draft Bill for scrutiny before it comes to Parliament is very useful. I commend the Government on that and congratulate the Joint Committee on its report.

I cannot forbear saying, however, that it is slightly ironic that, having had this slow and careful procedure of the Bill being available in draft in March, the present version is already going to be subject to amendment following the report of the Joint Committee, which we received at the end of last week. Of course, we must wait for the crucial draft regulations and guidance, which will put flesh on the skeleton of the Bill and which will be crucial to how it will work in practice. I suppose we must be patient.

Given the number of speakers and that we have to some extent been having two separate debates today, I propose to keep my remarks brief and confine them to Parts I and II of the Bill--in which I find much to welcome. In particular, I welcome the proposed power to promote the well-being of a local authority's area. It has been common ground for some time that just as there has been a shift in the role of local authorities from being mainly service providers to enablers, so the field of local governance below local authorities has expanded. It is highly desirable that local government should be encouraged to play its role as the democratic community leader in the complex world of local government.

The doctrine of vires, whereby local authorities have to produce statutory authority for any actions they take, has to a large extent inhibited the role of the community leader--particularly in partnerships with the private sector, where both sides have agreed and wanted to do something but have held back fearing a legal challenge. In 1995-96, the Select Committee on relations between central and local government recommended the sort of power that the Bill will introduce, which is very welcome. I take the point made earlier that the power will to some extent be circumscribed by the limits on local authorities raising their own finance. Nevertheless, that power will produce the statutory basis for community leadership.

During the hearing on the draft Bill that I chaired on behalf of the Local Government Association, I was repeatedly struck and encouraged by the absence of complacency among the witnesses. They did not tell us that what they had been doing for ages past was right and should not change. Almost all of them recognised and accepted the need to modernise their political leadership arrangements and structures. As many of your Lordships know, many local authorities have been doing so in anticipation of the Bill. Many welcomed the draft Bill as it stood but witnesses also expressed two concerns, to which noble Lords have referred today.

First, many witnesses expressed the feeling that none of the three executive models might be suitable for some authorities, such as small local authorities or those without a party political majority. The response to the Joint Committee makes it clear that while the Secretary of State would be able to add other executive models to the three in the Bill, he would not add any that did not involve a split between the executive and scrutiny roles. The question of further models will need further consideration and testing during the passage of the Bill through this House.

I am not saying that our witnesses wanted the status quo. Nor did they say that. They talked about the status quo plus. They used all sorts of language. The need to modernise was generally accepted but there was a feeling that the executive models would not suit in all circumstances, although they might suit in many of them.

It could even be argued that, if there is doubt, there could be a case--at least for a transitional period of years--for letting different models run in parallel, to see which worked better.

The second concern was that while the proposed arrangements in Part II should lead to executives that in theory can be more efficient, identifiable and accountable, they could in the long run--by appearing to diminish the role of back-bench members--lead to fewer able people being willing to stand for council membership. I am glad that there appears to be agreement on the importance of making scrutiny and overview a genuinely worthwhile job. That is something to which the Government say they attach importance and, in their response to the Joint Committee, they proposed to allow the development of the role and the delegation of executive functions to area committees. Again, we need to give further consideration during the passage of the Bill to establishing good direction of policy through the executive model or any other, while preserving a genuinely worthwhile role for the back-bencher, or whatever he is called in future.

It is impossible to comment on the regulations and guidance because we have not seen them.

Perhaps it is permissible to conclude by stressing the need for maximum flexibility within an overall policy. Local authorities differ considerably in their needs and aspirations. They should be encouraged to respond to local circumstances wherever possible. Local government is for local people. Central government guidelines and regulations ought to be as flexible as possible except where central control is genuinely necessary. Providing that flexibility will be the surest way to interest people and turn out the local voter.