Local Government Bill [H.L.]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:57 pm on 6th December 1999.

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Photo of Lord Tope Lord Tope Liberal Democrat 8:57 pm, 6th December 1999

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Tanworth. My noble friend Baroness Hamwee and I served on the Select Committee to which the noble Lord referred. He is quite right in his description of the evidence that was given. We entitled our report Rebuilding Trust, which was an apt title at the time and is still. It is a title against which we should judge how well the Bill fulfils its intentions.

I welcome the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, and a speech from another council leader in your Lordships' House. I have been here just five years and for most of that time I have been the only council leader in the House. For much of that time, more than half the councillors in your Lordships' House were in my own party. I am delighted that is no longer the case and that in this House, at least, we have people who speak with current knowledge and experience of local government. That will prove invaluable as the Bill goes forward.

I repeat and endorse the concerns expressed by my noble friend Lady Hamwee at the start of this debate. As it happens, members of all three Front Benches suffered through the long hours of the Greater London Authority Bill. All of us suffered a huge number of government amendments, often at late notice. We were very tolerant. We understood that there were considerable time pressures and we wanted to see the Bill through. We knew that Ministers were at least as angry, and embarrassed--and, no doubt, so were their officials.

I must put the Government on notice that we are not prepared to go through that process again with this Bill. The same excuses do not apply. The very day after the Bill was published, in a Written Answer in the other place, it was announced that the Government intended to bring forward substantial amendments to reflect their response to the Joint Committee report. But, at that time, none of us had seen the response to the Joint Committee's report, even though it was published last July. With some pressure from the Ministers, for which we are grateful, that response was finally published on Thursday afternoon.

However, I had the somewhat bizarre experience of going to the Printed Paper Office and being told that, although they had the Government's response, they could not give it to me, or anyone else, because they had not been authorised to release it. I do not wish to embarrass the Minister, but I believe he discovered the limitations of his powers that afternoon because he was not able to authorise that release. All this took place on the last sitting day before the Second Reading debate of a Bill which we have been told is not actually the Bill that the Government are going to take through this House. That is extremely unsatisfactory; indeed, we should not have to put up with it.

In case the Minister has forgotten, I shall repeat the request that my noble friend made earlier for assurances on when we will get all--not just one or two--of the Government's amendments as a package. Can the Minister tell us when we will get those amendments? Can he assure us that we will have them 14 days before the Committee stage begins, so that, this time, we can give proper and due consideration to the Government's real Bill, not the one that is before us today? Can the noble Lord also confirm that these amendments relate only to, or primarily to, Parts II and III of the Bill? Alternatively, will we see amendments to other parts of the legislation of which we are not yet even aware? That is the end of my whinge; but it is a serious one. I know that the Government Front Bench will take it as such.

I turn now to the Bill. A Second Reading debate should be about the principles of the legislation. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, just said, we have actually had two debates going on almost in parallel here for, perhaps, understandable reasons. The intention of the Bill is to promote the community leadership role of local government. We have heard talk about partnership committees and know that they have existed in one form or another in many authorities over the years. I was amused to hear the noble Lord, Lord Smith, refer to the leaders' forum in his local authority. We have a similar forum in my local authority, but we do not call it "the leaders' forum" and we do not have it over dinner; we call it the "breakfast forum". Perhaps that reflects the difference between a Labour-controlled authority and one controlled by the Liberal Democrats.

The other intention of the Bill is to ensure that local government is modern--a most over-used word that I am coming to resent more and more. Indeed, it must be modern, effective, transparent and, above all, accountable in its decision-making processes. In other words, the Bill's intention is, or should be, to revitalise local democracy. It is against those criteria that we have to judge the likely effects of the legislation.

I strongly support the proposals that are coming from elsewhere to modernise the electoral arrangements so as to bring a 19th-century system into the 21st century. I am strongly in favour of that aim. However, I do not believe that difficulty in voting is the reason for low turnouts at elections in this country. There may be some people who find it difficult or impossible to get to the polling station, but not 65 per cent of the electorate. If people want to vote in this country the vast majority of them can do so. Therefore, desirable though these changes are, that is not the reason for low turnouts.

It will not surprise noble Lords to know that I strongly support the change to a fairer voting system. I was impressed to note today that the calls we have heard in today's debate for such a system have come from Benches other than the Liberal Democrat Benches; indeed, such calls came mostly from the Government's own Benches. I take some heart from that fact. If we were ever to see any form of PR in this country, I always believed that it would come first to local government. However, I am now beginning to wonder whether it will ever come to local government.

Local government is ideally suited to a proportional system. If any single measure could break up the one-party state, to which the Government seem to object--though, personally, I have no objection to some one-party states, especially in the London borough of Sutton--it will be a proportional voting system. That, too, will go some way towards making voters feel that their vote is not wasted. However, important though it is, not even I believe that PR is the panacea to revitalise local democracy. What we need to revitalise local democracy is an entirely different relationship between local government and central government and, above all, between local government and local people.

My noble friend Lady Hamwee has occasionally referred to my liking for referring to "spheres" rather than tiers of government. It is not an original thought; indeed, it is fairly common in Europe and was, I believe, adopted in South Africa. But it is not a matter of playing with words; it is an important difference in attitude. The word "tiers" implies a hierarchy. It suggests that local government is somehow lower than central government. That is reinforced by the huge number of people who go from, and sometimes use, local government as a stepping stone into the House of Commons. When one talks about "spheres" of government, one is recognising that each different form of government has its own part to play in the total governance of the country. It is a very important difference in attitude and not just a matter of playing with words. Those are the principles--the criteria, if you like--on which we need to judge this Bill, and decide to what extent they will be achieved.

I start with Part I, which deals with what I would call the power of promoting well-being; in other words, economic, social and environmental well-being. That is welcomed. We are very pleased to see that provision and will support it. However, that still reinforces the idea of tiers rather than spheres. That is the essential difference between this power and the power of general competence that we seek. A power of general competence would say that local government may do all those things that it wishes to do, unless there is some prohibition by Parliament to prevent it from so doing. This power is the other way round and that is the important difference. Nevertheless, this is still a welcome step forward.

However, it may be an empty step. As others have said, the power is all very well: but if you have the power without the resources it is very limiting. I do not call for more money from the Government. I sometimes wince when my colleagues in local government continually ask for more money from central government. I want more power and more ability for local government to raise its own resources. I want it to be able to convince its own taxpayers and charge payers that what it wants to do is what they want it to do. That is what we need and that is what we should be getting through this power.

Part II of the Bill is considerably more troublesome. I find it a lot more difficult. That is not because I have a great problem in understanding or even, to some extent, agreeing with the executive and scrutiny split. Part II concentrates so much on the process and so little on the outcomes. The role of Parliament and of government should be to say, "These are the outcomes we want from government. This is what we want local government to achieve". If the Government really trusted local government, they would set those targets--those outcomes--and say to them, "You determine the process for achieving those targets in co-operation and consultation with your local partners and local people. What is important is not how you get there but where you get to". I believe that that is one of the essential weaknesses of Part II of this Bill.

I shall talk for a moment about my own local authority in the London borough of Sutton. I am no longer leader there, which makes it a little easier for me to talk about it. My party is now in its fourth term of office there. That is a fairly unusual experience for the Liberal Democrats, even these days. It is even more unusual in London, which is not generally considered to be natural Liberal Democrat territory.