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, I said that it was unusual, but not unique. What is unique is that at the previous two London borough elections the Liberal Democrats in my borough polled over 50 per cent of the vote. Therefore we have a popular mandate, albeit not one that justifies our having 85 per cent of the seats.

Every two years since 1987 we have commissioned MORI to take a residents' attitude survey. For their interest rather than ours, the first question always concerns overall satisfaction. We have just had the latest results for 1999. I note that in the table showing the results for authorities over the past five years the London borough of Sutton features three times in the best five results. However, we are not complacent. We have undertaken our own restructuring. We have adopted an executive and a separate scrutiny role. We did that with all-party agreement. We consulted the public on this matter earlier this year. Other noble Lords have said that the public are not necessarily most excited at being consulted on council structures and that that is not a natural turn on for the electorate. The consultation was issued with a covering letter signed by the three party leaders. We put forward Sutton's model, which is a little different from that proposed by the Government, and we put forward the Government's three models. Some 2,800 households in what is a relatively small London borough responded to that consultation, and 80 per cent of them supported our proposals.

Although we have a heavy party majority, our executive is all party and it meets in the open. I hope that when the Minister replies to the debate he will say whether it is the Government's intention that when this Bill becomes law we shall throw the Labour Party off our executive committee, as it will not be happy if that has to happen. If it happens shortly before the 2002 London borough elections, I shall probably be slightly happier than that party.

There are concerns about the scrutiny role which we need to address. I believe that it is an important role. I agree with what others have said; namely, that councillors need to value that crucially important role. However, in my experience most councillors wish to be not necessarily members of the executive but at least to have a proper and effective say in decisions that will be taken by the executive, wherever that executive is and whoever it comprises. That is echoed in concerns that have been expressed by the right reverend Prelate with regard to the Churches, and indeed other bodies, governors and so on, who are represented on committees under old structures. That is most obvious in the case of education committees where church, teacher and parent governor representatives have a statutory right. They may have a useful role on a scrutiny body but they want to be on the decision-making body. I have yet to hear of anyone dealing satisfactorily with that difficulty.

My next point--I believe that this is extremely important--is that local authorities should have the resources to be able to give distinct and separate support to the scrutiny committee. If councillors are back-benchers, as many have called them, less experienced, have less time--and, let us be honest, some may have less ability--but are effectively to carry out the scrutiny role they need professional support, advice and guidance to be able to do so. That advice and guidance cannot be given fairly by those who are being scrutinised. That is an important issue.

As regards area committees, I was delighted to see that the Government have recognised that they can have a value and a role. I hope that the Minister can say more tonight about what the Government mean in their response by keeping,

"clear corporate accountability for executive functions".

Will all councillors in an area be able to serve on the area committee and take the executive decisions that that committee is empowered to take regardless of where they happen to be in the executive/scrutiny split? If we are told that, it may go a little way to help councillors who are not on the executive.

The Minister would be surprised if I did not mention recall of the mayor. We disagreed on this issue on a number of occasions when we discussed the GLA Bill. I note in their response that the Government have carefully considered this matter. Among their objections is a principled one as an elected mayor,

"would be unique among those in the UK directly elected" who could be replaced in some other way. I suspect that is true but I wonder whether the Minister can tell us whether any other directly elected office anywhere in the UK will have the personal power that a directly elected mayor will have. It is a unique role and we need unique provisions to be able to deal with what I hope will be a small number of cases where the mayor truly loses the confidence of his or her local community. We can all imagine--perhaps we do not need too much imagination--how such circumstances could arise. There has to be some way of dealing with such a situation--and we need to find that way before it happens, not afterwards.

Part III of the Bill has not attracted a great deal of attention--although there was one very good speech on it. That is perhaps because we all welcome it. It is the part which deals with ethical standards. Despite some quite properly well-publicised and extremely unfortunate and unpleasant cases, local government generally in this country is remarkably free of corruption. It may well be that that is because local government has very little power in this country and is not worth corrupting, but I like to think that it is for higher reasons.

Part IV deals with elections. I cannot help but agree with the view of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, about electoral systems. When he replies, I hope that the Minister will be able to say a little more about what the Government intend with the power they will be given when the Bill is enacted. They have the power to change the electoral timetable. Perhaps I may ask the Minister whether it is the Government's intention to impose such changes, or simply to have power to respond to local wishes for such changes to take place. Again, that is a very important difference.

The parallel debate which has been going on has been about Clause 68. I have spoken on the subject of Section 28 on many occasions; I have no doubt that I will do so again on many occasions during the progress of the Bill. I think that tonight it has all been said in some excellent speeches, particularly by the noble Baronesses, Lady Massey and Lady Gould, with whom I agree entirely. I was astonished to hear speakers from the Conservative Benches suggesting that the Government had been trying to slip this in unobtrusively so that nobody would notice. I occasionally think that the Government are naive--but not that naive. Given that the Conservative Party apparently believes that this was coming in surreptitiously, we all owe the Conservative Party a debt for such noble self-sacrifice in drawing such great public attention to the provisions of the Bill. It was not necessary. It is astonishing that it has got rid of its most effective London spokesman--I did not agree with what he said, but he was certainly effective--on an issue such as this.

I will say a lot more about this on another occasion; time is getting on now. It was also a manifesto commitment of the Liberal Democrats to repeal Section 28. We strongly welcome the Government's courage in grasping the nettle and including it in the Bill. It is an extremely important measure. I understand very well its importance but I hope, none the less, that it will not dominate the proceedings of the Bill, which is about many other important measures as well. But we will give it our support.

In conclusion, I resent very strongly the suggestion that if we question some of the provisions of Part II of the Bill we must be against change; that somehow we are anti-modernists or dinosaurs. It is very difficult for a Liberal Democrat to feel himself or herself to be a dinosaur. We are not against change; we are strongly in favour of change. We want change that makes local government truly more open and transparent; that makes it more effective and more locally accountable in its decision-making. We want change that builds trust, not only between central and local government but between local government and local people. That is how we will judge the Bill and why we have grave doubts that Part II, as drafted, will bring about the changes we want.