Local Government

– in the Scottish Parliament at 9:31 am on 2nd July 1999.

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Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament 9:31 am, 2nd July 1999

The next item of business is a ministerial statement on the McIntosh commission report.

Photo of Michael Russell Michael Russell Scottish National Party

On a point of order, Mr Presiding Officer. As this is the first day that the Parliament is invested with its powers, I was interested to hear the Minister for Communities talk about a spirit of consultation. Will you rule on the fact that the statement that we are about to hear was given, substantially, to the nation at quarter to 8 this morning on Radio Scotland? That was an hour before the statement was made available to the Opposition who have to comment on it.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

I will not answer the point of order just now, but I have been reflecting on precisely the same point. If I may, I will deal with it privately afterwards.

I call on Wendy Alexander to make the statement. There will be questions at the end of the statement before we move on to the debate, so there should be no interventions during the statement.

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour 10:16 am, 2nd July 1999

Yesterday marked a renewal of Scottish democracy. It is fitting that our first task with our full powers is to continue that process of renewal by considering our relationship with the other democratically elected tier of government in Scotland-local government.

Local government is of crucial importance to every person in Scotland. It provides democratic leadership for cities, towns and communities. I applaud the work undertaken by committed councillors from all parties and recognise the hours that are given up, the service that is offered, the good work that is done and the achievements in building stronger communities.

Through the dark times in the 1980s it fell to local government to uphold the values of fairness, justice and opportunity. Those values are close to the heart of many members in this Parliament and we are now charged with upholding them. As we forge a new democracy, we know that our ability to deliver better services to the people of Scotland depends on the dedication of those who provide local services.

It is time for a new partnership, not of words, but of actions. Today I want to describe how the Executive will build upon the McIntosh proposals, and indeed go beyond them, to ensure that local government takes its rightful place at the heart of the new Scotland.

I want today to pay tribute to the work of Neil McIntosh and his team. The principle underlying their report is parity of esteem: a meeting of equals, with mutual trust and respect on both sides.

We will shortly publish a consultation document setting out how the Executive plans to develop the McIntosh recommendations. In the partnership document we promised an immediate programme of change in response to the McIntosh report; we will honour that commitment.

I now want to make a number of announcements that will build on the McIntosh recommendations, none of which featured on the radio this morning. McIntosh asked us to consider his recommendations as a package and we have done that.

I will start with a matter that the McIntosh report does not deal with directly but which is of much wider importance. The Executive and this Parliament expect the highest standards throughout the public service. We therefore intend to change the previously announced local government ethics bill to a local government and public bodies ethics bill. We will hold further discussions with interested parties over the next few weeks, including discussions on the scope for a statutory code of conduct, and proposals that the new standards commission for Scotland should have powers to investigate issues of probity concerning members of public bodies.

Good local government demands good leadership, and as part of our agenda for change I have asked the Deputy Minister for Local Government, Frank McAveety, to establish a new leadership forum, bringing together ministers and all 32 council leaders. The first leadership forum will convene in September, and at that time we will unveil a package of support for member and officer development.

In line with our commitment to community planning, I want to consult carefully on the case for a power of general competence. We will consult further on that important issue.

The heart of McIntosh is a process of self-renewal for councils, rather than prescribing changes in law. I am happy to endorse that process of self-renewal. We need structures that support change, rather than obstruct it. The current committee system was designed for the 19th century, not the 21st. The public sees delays, bureaucracy and confusion. We welcome McIntosh's recommendation for councils to move towards executive systems that formalise the existing political leaderships. Some councils have already begun to reform in that way. I want all councils to think about following suit. We recognise that no one structure will fit all but, in future, the Scottish public want to know when decisions are taken, how they are taken and who can be called to account for them.

However, once again, we want to go further. We want to raise aspirations, set ambitions high and enthuse members and officers, so before setting up the McIntosh panel of advisers on new structures we want to encourage some fresh perspectives from individuals who have led effective reorganisations and cultural change in their own organisations. I am delighted to confirm that the first two champions for change will be Brian Souter and Doug Riley. Other champions of change from the public and voluntary sectors will follow.

Modernising structures should be a priority for every council. McIntosh offers a time scale for action, and we accept it. We expect all councils to embrace reform by the end of 2000, and we will take steps to monitor progress and secure results.

There are several areas in which I would like the Local Government Committee to inform the process and lead the public debate. I have in mind issues such as the operation of the covenant and the joint conference, the arrangements for local elections and the political restrictions on council officers. The arguments concerning council employees standing for election are complex. No decision has been taken on that matter, but there is evidence that the current arrangements on political restriction are not working: of the 184 appeals since it was introduced, 161 have been upheld. Clearly, there is a case for reform.

McIntosh has made significant recommendations in relation to community councils. Again, I accept them all, but I want to go further. As Minister for Communities, I am acutely aware of the need to involve people in decision making. No one has a monopoly on wisdom, so we will cast the net wide. We will include the full range of community organisations, such as tenants groups and housing associations, and make use of new mechanisms, such as citizens' juries.

McIntosh also suggested that councils should be elected for a four-year term. I am sympathetic to that case, but the discussion must also address whether those elections should be held midway through the parliamentary session, as McIntosh suggests, or coincide with the Scottish Parliament elections, to reduce voter fatigue and increase turnout.

The challenge underlying all of McIntosh's recommendations is how we renew local democracy in Scotland. That can only happen if we make public service more attractive to those who might be attracted to serve in it. That should be the backdrop to the question of electoral reform and the recommendations on proportional representation.

The partnership document committed us to progress on electoral reform. McIntosh has argued the case for it. His report asks us to look at the most appropriate voting system for Scottish local government. That we shall do. Today, I am announcing the formation of the working party that McIntosh recommends. It will be cross party, and the chair will be Richard Kerley.

The working party will have three crucial tasks. First, it will consider ways in which standing as a councillor can be made more attractive to more people.

Secondly, it will advise on the appropriate number of members for each council, taking account of the different characteristics of cities and rural authorities. On electoral reform, it will take into account the criteria that were suggested by McIntosh: proportionality; the councillor-ward link; fair provision for independents; allowance for geographical diversity; and a close fit between council wards and natural communities.

Thirdly, the working party will advise on an appropriate system of remuneration for councillors. Because we want to see real leadership properly rewarded, there will be an independent element in the setting of allowances that takes account of the available resources.

We will ensure that the working party has access to the widest possible range of expert advice and analysis, and we look forward to receiving its report.

Finance was not included in McIntosh's remit, but we take seriously his view that financial matters are a vital part of the agenda for change. Today I simply want to lay out the Executive's general approach; my colleague Jack McConnell will want to consult further over the summer.

The central financial challenge for local government is the same as that which faces this Parliament: how do we achieve better government, rather than bigger government? I want to congratulate local government on its recent achievements. Since 1997, average council tax increases have been halved and halved again, to a figure this year of only 2.6 per cent. Best value is now delivering real improvements in services.

We recognise that many aspects of the present financial arrangements need to be addressed, and that we can work closely and constructively with local government on that. We intend to respond to McIntosh's call for a review by pressing ahead vigorously with action on a number of fronts.

First, the reviews of distribution arrangements that were begun after reorganisation in 1996 are under way in conjunction with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, and should be completed as soon as is practicable. We are also undertaking a review of the capital finance system, which will continue.

Secondly, we are about to embark on a revaluation of business rates. Differences between the commercial property markets of Scotland and England are likely to lead to different rate poundages in the future as at present, even when the intention is to raise identical sums. That being the case, the Executive believes that it would be wrong to create any further turbulence for business by altering the national regime for non-domestic rates at this time.

Thirdly, there is a modernising agenda for local government finance. We in Government have ideas, councils have ideas and third parties have ideas. We must examine how local government can benefit from the long-term stability that we have brought to national financing. We must also investigate how we can pool funding streams between central Government, local government and other public agencies, to deliver savings and joined-up government, and look at new ways of drawing in private sector resources. Finally, we must examine whether business improvement districts could promote closer working between councils and the businesses in their area.

All that adds up to a serious and heavy agenda for local government finance. We will pursue it vigorously and keep the area under review. In partnership with COSLA, we will progress the priorities that I have outlined.

In conclusion, the McIntosh report contains many recommendations. Among them are many things for which local government has lobbied over many years. I have not been able to mention every one of the recommendations, but I can confirm today that the Scottish Executive proposes to accept the overwhelming majority of them. Today is a good day for local government in Scotland.

I started by talking about the need for partnership. The partnership will come alive not simply by providing modern services, but when all Scotland's politicians live up to the challenge of co-operating to tackle the root causes of the poverty and social division that scar Scotland.

Our challenge as politicians, whether local or national, is to deal with those old problems in new ways. We will look for trust instead of distrust, for mutual respect instead of mutual suspicion, and for partnership instead of conflict. Individuals will not always agree, but will strive in partnership for common goals.

What we are proposing today will bring fundamental change to local government across Scotland. I hope that the 1,222 councillors of all parties will join us in renewing local democracy to meet the challenges of the 21 st century.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

A number of members have indicated that they wish to participate in the debate. The minister will now take questions on her statement.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

First, does the minister agree that council tax is one of the most regressive forms of taxation and that a fairer, local government income tax is required to redistribute some of the massive wealth that exists in our country? Secondly, will she explain why, among all the recommendations in the McIntosh report, the recommendation for an immediate independent inquiry into local government finance has been completely and utterly fudged?

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

I disagree wholeheartedly with Tommy Sheridan's assessment of the council tax. I am astonished that someone who purports to be a socialist should stand up and recommend that Scotland is left without any form of personal property taxation. On his second question, it is for this Parliament, this Executive, our Local Government Committee and COSLA to make the decisions about financing local government. We see no need to outsource that process to any independent body. Contrary to what Tommy Sheridan suggests, we are suggesting immediate progress on a number of fronts rather than a review, which would be likely to take two years if its time scale were comparable to that involved with the McIntosh commission.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

In her opening remarks, the minister stated that local government should take its rightful place in the new Scotland. Will she respond to my suggestion that that includes bringing Scotland's water authorities back under local government control? I draw the minister's attention to the advertisement in today's recruitment pages, through which the Executive wishes to employ directly a water industry commissioner-on a handsome wage of £65,000 a year-to give "the Scottish Executive independent advice".

I suggest to the minister that this commissioner, if employed directly by the Scottish Ministers, will be likely to let them hear what they want to hear, as they will be the paymasters. Does the minister agree that the Parliament should be responsible for employing the water industry commissioner?

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

My recollection is that, as a result of the reorganisation enforced on local government, we have ended up with 32 local authorities. We have no desire to have 32 water bodies. We have three, and we have taken steps to put many more councillors on those bodies. I remind Richard Lochhead that, unlike in England, water remains in the public sector in Scotland. On his second point, there is an interesting issue at root: how to encourage more people to stand for public office, and the sort of scrutiny that exists of the individuals who stand and who are appointed. In my speech, I said that we expect public bodies to continue to play a major role, but we are anxious that the people who take up appointments to them are subject to the same form of scrutiny as people who stand for directly elected office.

Photo of David McLetchie David McLetchie Conservative

I note that the process of re-writing history continues apace in the Administration. When the minister referred to the dark times in the 1980s, she was obviously referring to the dark times when businesses large and small were being ripped off by Labour-controlled councils-a process that was remedied only by the introduction of the uniform business rate.

Will the minister clarify some of her remarks about business rates? She talked about there being no need for further turbulence. Can she categorically advise us whether the Executive will, during this parliamentary session, rule out any abolition of the uniform business rate or any return to local councils of the power to levy a supplementary charge on top of the uniform business rate? The minister will know that that is a matter of great concern to Scotland's business community, and to organisations large and small.

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

In my statement, I confirmed that we intend to retain a national non-domestic rating system that will be set annually by the Government.

Photo of Hugh Henry Hugh Henry Labour

I do not have a question.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

Do you want to make a contribution, Mr Henry?

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

No. Do you want to ask a question?

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

Thank you. I call Mr Andy Kerr.

Photo of Andy Kerr Andy Kerr Labour

Several authorities have done a lot of work to consult communities. Will the minister use those authorities as models of best practice throughout Scotland?

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

Very much so. As I said, using community councils as the sole forum of interaction with communities does not reflect the diversity within communities throughout Scotland. I am particularly anxious that the Local Government Committee should examine, on an all-party basis, new ways of involving and empowering communities and spread best practice in such areas.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

I thank the minister for the positive nature of much of her speech. SNP members will agree with a lot of what she said, but I have a number of questions for her and I hope that members will bear with me.

First, I am concerned about the minister's apparent refusal to sanction an independent inquiry into local government finances, which the McIntosh commission strongly recommended. Only three days ago, COSLA reiterated a view that was expressed in its manifesto, "A Local Government Contract for Scotland". That document said:

"Too much financial dependency on central government confuses accountability and contains too many central controls both over funding and spending".

Will the minister explain her rationale in ignoring the overwhelming view of all those who represent local government at the coal face, including the four political parties that are represented on COSLA, the independent group of councillors and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives?

Secondly, given that the minister has signalled the Executive's intention to proceed with the McIntosh commission's recommendation on PR-we welcome the establishment of the task force-will she give an assurance that the working party will report in time to fulfil the McIntosh commission's recommendation, on page 25 of its report, that PR should "take effect in time to govern the next council elections in 2002"?

Thirdly, does the minister agree that the logical position of cabinet or accountable executive local government is that that structure should be extended to cover the work of COSLA? Does she agree that COSLA should review its own structures in the light of the McIntosh report's recommendations specifically in relation to the operation of party groups and whips within COSLA's decision-making structure?

Finally, we welcome the minister's commitment that the Executive will accept the overwhelming majority of the recommendations. Will she clarify whether it is the Executive's intention to implement the recommendations that it accepts prior to the next local government elections?

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

I appreciate Kenny's welcome of the statement that we have issued. We very much hope that the spirit in which we have approached the McIntosh commission's report is an example of the new politics in Scotland. I think that there can be some measure of cross-party agreement on a wide range of areas. More important, there can be agreement with our colleagues in local government.

The issue of refusing to sanction an independent review arose in response to Mr Sheridan's question. We believe that it is for this Parliament to act on issues of finance, and we have laid out a wide-ranging programme to examine the distribution committee capital, the revaluation and a whole set of modernising reforms in finance. I have made it clear that we will involve many independent experts, but we feel very strongly that it is wholly inappropriate simply to out-source the financial relationship between this Parliament and local government.

Mr Gibson asked for an assurance that we would implement, by 2002, the recommendations of the working party on proportional representation. I cannot give him that assurance, partly because, as I said in my statement, we are particularly attracted by the idea of moving to a four-year term. As he will know, that is something for which COSLA has long argued.

Thirdly, on the point about the internal relationships in COSLA and the issue of political whipping, it seems to me that, in keeping with the spirit of self-renewal that we are encouraging, although the Executive would be supportive of COSLA's organisation of its internal affairs, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the matter at this stage.

I am sorry; what was Mr Gibson's final point?

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

Do not worry; I do not think that anyone could have memorised it.

We welcome the minister's commitment that the Executive will accept the overwhelming majority of the recommendations. Will she clarify whether the Executive intends to implement those recommendations prior to the next local government elections?

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

We accept the overwhelming majority of the recommendations. Some of them we accept only in part, and that is what the consultation exercise will flesh out. We want to move as quickly as possible on as many of the recommendations as we can, but it is not possible to go further than that in advance of the consultation exercise, in which we expect COSLA and individual councils to be closely involved.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

Thank you. The debate will run until noon. Members should make their speeches as brief as they can, so that we can allow as many members as possible to take part. Having said that, I now call Mr Kenny Gibson to reply for the Opposition.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party 10:42 am, 2nd July 1999

It is with enormous personal pride, satisfaction and pleasure that I reply to the minister's statement on the report of the McIntosh commission-enormous pride because this is the first debate of our new Parliament under its full powers and the first debate after the magnificent splendour of yesterday's ceremony and the huge positive wave that we felt from the Scottish people.

It gives me satisfaction because the first debate is on local government. I trust that signifies local government is now being welcomed in from the political cold to become a full partner in the good governance of Scotland.

It gives me pleasure because I believe in the spirit of our vesting day. Local government is an area in which we can genuinely make a difference through genuine consensus. That is not to say that there is no argument in this chamber about what the minister has announced. Those who heard my questions will have no doubt about where some of the disagreements lie. Where there is agreement, however, it is genuine and heartfelt, and where we can go forward together, we will.

I assure the Deputy Minister for Local Government that, although he and I may have spent the past two years lobbing verbal hand grenades at each other across the floor of Glasgow City Chambers, those days are now behind us.

Photo of Wendy Alexander Wendy Alexander Labour

Not yet. Wait. [Laughter.]

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

There is genuine consensus in Scottish local government, in Scottish politics and in Scottish civic society about the desperate need for modernisation and reform. Local government is tired of being a whipping boy and seeks positive renewal for itself. The Scottish Parliament, conscious of becoming the new media scapegoat, must make local government a full and equal partner in the new Scotland, and I am pleased that the Executive agrees with that aim.

The partnership that McIntosh recommends is a new covenant, as the report calls it. I am, understandably, nervous of using the term covenanters, knowing the history of this chamber. Perhaps, through McIntosh, we will all become the new covenanters for the next millennium.

Members of the SNP thank Neil McIntosh and his commission for the huge effort they have put into the report-both the sheer volume of work that was undertaken and the absolute diligence with which it was carried out. As a participant and an interested party, I found the report and the two consultation papers insightful, innovative and accessible. Neil McIntosh and his commission deserve our fullest praise.

Members on this side of the chamber are prepared to accept the McIntosh recommendations as a whole. We believed on first reading, and still believe after further analysis, that the proposals represent a balanced outlook, and we have accepted the commission's plea that the proposals should be taken as a package. It is disappointing that, contrary to previous statements in the press, the minister and the Executive have decided on an element of cherry picking.

The lack of an independent financial review of local government is a matter of real concern; the lack of a clear timetable for implementing proportional representation is a matter of some frustration; the fudge on general competence is a real disappointment.

However, the SNP is prepared to work with the Executive to get the best possible deal from this situation, but we issue one word of caution to the Executive-it should not be swayed in its convictions by matters of internal party dispute. The McIntosh commission captured a consensus that carries across the parties in this chamber. When vested interest and narrow gain are taken out of the equation, that consensus spreads across Scotland's town, city and county buildings.

On a minor, discordant note, having looked at some of the local authority submissions to the commission, I find it difficult to take seriously some the critical comments that some members have made. One example comes from my old friend and colleague, Councillor Charlie Gordon, leader of Glasgow City Council and self-proclaimed hammer of proportional representation. He described the debate around PR as "a dangerous distraction". That is different from what Glasgow City Council's submission said about PR. The city council's submission was made while it was under the leadership of the Deputy Minister for Local Government. It read:

"Glasgow City Council is of the view that a comprehensive review should be set up which looks into all electoral systems. This review should have as its express purpose the task of determining the most accountable system for local government in the 21st century."

I could quote other, similar, statements, but I will not, partly because I fear that you, Madam Deputy Presiding Officer, will not give me the time, and partly because I fear that the new-found consensus with which I so boldly began might break down.

I do not seek to labour the point on PR. I simply want to state that what local authorities, voluntary organisations, trade unions and many individuals submitted to McIntosh represents the broad current of opinion. However tempted ministers are to listen to the voice of vested interest, I trust that they will resist that temptation and will listen instead to the broad consensus and back the right course.

There are many more subjects I would like to address in detail-indeed, my colleagues will do so during this debate. I look forward to the future of local government with optimism and I have no reservation in commending to this chamber the work of the McIntosh commission in its entirety.

Photo of Keith Harding Keith Harding Conservative 10:47 am, 2nd July 1999

I am delighted that we have this opportunity to debate the McIntosh commission report before the summer recess. It has been long awaited and I, too, would like to pay tribute to Neil McIntosh and the other members of the commission who have put so much time and effort into producing the final document.

There is no doubt that a review of the relationship between local government and the Scottish Parliament was necessary and that reform of the way our local authorities are run was essential. Too many councils in Scotland have failed their communities. The priority for the Scottish Conservatives is to restore public confidence in our councils by ensuring that they are accountable to their local communities and that they deliver good local services that give value for money.

The new Scottish Parliament will clearly change the way in which Scotland is governed. Everyone involved in Scottish politics will have to adapt to that change and local government cannot be exempted from that process. It is important that there is a constructive relationship between the Scottish Parliament and local authorities, but issues such as who controls which functions should not be set in tablets of stone. What matters to the people of Scotland is the quality of the service provided, not who provides it.

The emphasis in any reform of local government must be on improving the quality of service to local communities. The proposals to improve the conduct of council business are welcome as a way of speeding up decision making and increasing accountability. The Conservatives believe that cabinet systems could remove the need for the numerous committees that have become a feature of local government. That in turn could well lead to more efficient local government. Directly elected provosts could also increase local accountability and we would encourage that system where there was a local desire for that type of government.

Both of those moves would mean that there would be a need for a small number of full-time councillors. The Conservatives see no problem with that as long as it is self-financing and accompanied by a reduction in the total number of councillors. That would mean redefining the role of the other councillors who would act as advocates for their wards and scrutinise the activity of the cabinet through a committee system. That would be an important and challenging role, but a reduction in the number of committees would reduce the time commitment. The advantage of that would be that people from a wider variety of backgrounds would be able to become involved in local government.

We are somewhat concerned about any relaxation in the rules governing council employees standing for election. There is a clear conflict of interest in council employees being councillors in the authority where they work. As far as we are concerned, the case for a relaxation of those rules has not been made.

There is no doubt of the need to encourage greater interest in local authorities and a higher turnout at local elections. The McIntosh commission has proposed some good ideas to simplify procedures and increase participation in local elections. We also go along with the idea of a four-year term in local government, but elections must be staggered so that they do not coincide with Scottish parliamentary elections.

However, we believe that it is vital that the link between a councillor and his or her ward is maintained. We would oppose any reform of the electoral system that breaks that vital link. In the absence of an alternative system that maintains that link, we favour the existing method of voting.

On finance, the small proportion of revenue that is raised locally by councils needs to be addressed in any review of local government finance. As we stated in our manifesto, we believe that a parliamentary committee should consider that. However, we do not believe that giving local authorities the power to set business rates is the answer to the problem.

The uniform business rate has been of immense benefit to businesses in Scotland and it has created a level playing field in the United Kingdom. Scottish businesses remember only too well the penal rates that they had to pay when local authorities in Scotland controlled the setting of business rates. It put Scotland's businesses at a serious competitive disadvantage compared with their counterparts south of the border.

Local authorities in Scotland have a lot of work to do before they are trusted by the business community. All the major business organisations are adamantly opposed to going back to the old system of allowing councils to levy a supplementary rate on top of the UBR.

Despite Mr McLetchie's question this morning, the Labour party has failed to rule out giving councils powers to levy a local business rate. I hope that the minister will take this opportunity to do so.

The Scottish Conservatives believe that we need to examine ways of increasing the independence of local authorities, which means looking at the functions of our councils. We believe that education should be removed from local authority control and that funding should flow directly to local communities and groups of schools in local authority areas. Schools would then belong to their own communities and reflect the needs and aspirations of those communities.

The proportion of revenue raised locally would be increased, thereby increasing accountability to the local electorate. The reassessment of local government's responsibilities should go hand in hand with freeing local authorities from the obligations imposed by central government. We will advocate that approach in the Local Government Committee.

We do not believe that decentralisation of power stops at local councils. We want to see real power being devolved to individuals, families and local communities and we welcome the McIntosh commission's proposals for strengthening community councils. Decision making must be devolved to the lowest possible level as a way of strengthening civic society and revitalising communities. We will support any proposals that help to achieve that.

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat 10:53 am, 2nd July 1999

On behalf of the Liberal Democrat group in the Parliament and our many council groups, I warmly welcome the McIntosh report. I do not think that I have ever read a public document that hit so many nails so firmly on the head, and we strongly support it.

We also support the general thrust of the minister's statement in support of local government and welcome many of the things she suggested. There is a huge opportunity for a major reform of local government by consensus. We have learned from the past the dangers of major reform without consensus. I welcome the tenor of the first meeting of the Local Government Committee-I am sure that it will do a lot of good work. It shows that even rebels can sook when required.

On a more serious note, we welcome the consensus in the committee on the need for many of the reforms supported by the McIntosh commission, and its feeling of independence. It can play an important role, separate from the Government. We must support local government and, as the minister said, encourage it and try to restore its self-esteem. It has come in for a lot of criticism.

There is a problem in that, for understandable human reasons, civil servants who advise ministers think that they are competent whereas local government is not. I am sure that many civil servants are extremely competent, but when we examine the record, local government has no disasters that are in the same league as the poll tax, the child support agency, the benefit system or the inability to issue passports. There might be disasters or incompetencies on particular issues and, as in any human organisation, some people are not up to scratch, but the competence of a huge amount of local government is very high.

We welcome the ideas of self-review, finding local solutions to local problems and finding more decentralisation within councils. We support the idea of publicising and learning from good practice in local government. There is too much reinventing the wheel; a lot of good work goes on and people could learn from each other.

We also make a clear statement that this Parliament and, I hope, this Executive, has no intention of stealing powers from local government. Local government has a genuine fear about that.

Like some members who have already spoken, I was disappointed in the iffiness of the minister's remarks about general competence and the ability of some employees to stand as councillors. The issue of general competence is recognised across Europe; there is such a power in many countries and it is sensible that local government be enabled to do anything for the benefit of the local community that is not illegal or not already done statutorily by some other body.

As regards employees standing as councillors, the idea that a schoolteacher, or middle-ranking official of some sort, will somehow pervert the whole system to promote his or her career is a load of rubbish. In many large rural areas, such people represent a reservoir of potential talent that we are not allowed to use. Our party is very keen on the issues of general competence and, with appropriate safeguards, allowing employees to stand as councillors.

The two pillars on which local government should rest are democracy and accountability. Democracy involves making it easier to vote and having a fairer voting system. We will be very happy to take part in debates and education on proportional representation, which is not as complicated as people like to make out. However, I served under a previous party leader who did not understand the voting system at all; ignorance is not confined to other parties.

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat

Members can work it out for themselves.

It is not a sin not to understand proportional representation, but it is sensible to discuss it and we will welcome taking part in the debate. We feel strongly that the single transferable vote is easily the best system, because it gives the power to the voters and not to the organisations-which is why organisations are against it. The list systems are awful; the recent European election was awful and, although I got in to this place on a list, I would far prefer to get in by STV. I am all for giving the power to the voter and we will fight hard for that. We welcome the approach to proportional representation, our position on which is well known.

I also put down a marker, here and throughout the country, that our party is very keen on having a proper, overall inquiry into local government finance. We will be happy to co-operate in an overall review, whether it takes the form of a freestanding, independent commission, or is done through the Local Government Committee, using independent advisers. The minister was misleading in one respect when she set out the aspects of local government finance that she thinks, sensibily, need to be looked at in the short term and said that she thought it was an either/or choice between doing that and having an overall review. I do not think that that is the case at all; we can have short or medium-term changes, but we must also look at the long term.

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat

If one builds a local government system in which local government raises only 20 per cent of its money, one is building on sand. That system must be reformed. We feel strongly that, one way or another, there must be a really independent inquiry.

On all those issues, the Liberal Democrats will be happy to co-operate and to work hard for the benefit of local government. We have a huge opportunity. Let us not miss it.

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party 11:00 am, 2nd July 1999

I would also like to start by welcoming much of what the Minister for Communities said. I welcome her positive response to the idea of a four-year cycle. In winding up, will she tell us whether she is in sympathy with the idea of general competence? She did not give any indication of where her sympathies lie on that or whether she is sympathetic to introducing a system of PR. Despite what we have heard through the media about the Government's view on PR, if one looks closely at her statement, it does not say whether she is sympathetic. Although the statement refers to the formation of the working party that McIntosh recommends, it does not suggest that its remit or direction will arrive at PR.

I welcome unreservedly the McIntosh report in its entirety. It reflects not only the majority view in Scottish local government but the views of the electorate. As Mr Gibson said, I hope that we will not have any delays, especially in the areas where there is clear-cut agreement, so that implementation takes place as soon as possible.

I am a little concerned by some of the comments made on PR since the McIntosh report was released. Some councillors seem to resent intervention from an outside body. It is almost as if some of our council barons have adapted the idea of the divine right of kings to the modern age. They seem to believe that no one knows better than they do how to run local government and that they have a divine right to do it, and they will brook no interference in their traditional role, which is to tell us what to do and what kind of services we will get. Like the great political dinosaurs of the past, they refuse to accept that times have moved on.

We should be in no doubt that the political mood in Scotland has changed and for the better. We have moved on from choosing between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, when the first-past-the-post system was acceptable. These days, Tweedledum does not seem to attract much support from Scottish voters. Members who have studied the results of the past four elections will have no doubt that we are now firmly in the realm of four-party politics-indeed, after the most recent election, we are moving on to five or six parties. I welcome that, because it reflects the political diversity in our society. Political pluralism is healthy for democracy. The age-old adage that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely is borne out whenever political parties gain huge majorities on the back of minority support. There can be no doubt that one of the reasons why McIntosh put PR at the top of the political agenda is the abuse of power and the appearance of political corruption that flows from that abuse in certain great former Labour fiefdoms in west central Scotland, which does no credit to politics.

I have heard some Labour politicians say that they have already given up too much. They point to SNP members and say that without their grace and favour in introducing PR, the SNP would have only a fraction of the seats that it currently holds. They point to the Tories and say that without Labour's grace and favour they would not have been here at all. Without PR, I doubt whether any of us would be here today. That kind of agreement was required to achieve the referendum result.

Photo of David Davidson David Davidson Conservative

I take it that Brian Adam is winding up to say that this Parliament is all the better for having the Conservative list contingent here today, along with people such as him, so that we reflect society. I assume that he will expand on that point, but I thank him for noticing that we are here this morning, unlike many other members.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

Mr Adam, please wind up when you respond.

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party

I thank Mr Davidson for his intervention. I welcome the Conservatives' presence as a reminder to the public of just how bad they were.

I will highlight one or two examples from recent council elections. There are real problems in our councils. The situation cannot continue in which, in one local authority, the Labour party had 32 per cent of the vote-less than a third-but won 22 seats and a majority on the council. The Liberal Democrats gained 12 seats from 25 per cent of the vote. The SNP also had 25 per cent of the vote, but gained three seats.

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party

That is a fourfold difference.

That does not reflect any kind of fair voting. It happened in Aberdeen, but the same is true throughout Scotland. It is a travesty of a result, an affront to democracy and an insult to the voters. The same can be said in many areas.

This is not idle whingeing. Such results matter because they are unjust, not just to my party, but to many other parties and to the voters.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

Please come to a close now, Mr Adam.

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party

I am not whingeing because the SNP did not do well; in the European elections we would have won an additional seat through the first-past-the-post system. We are prepared to accept that, from time to time, PR will not be to our advantage, but consider PR to be the best route. I hope that the minister will indicate whether she is sympathetic to the introduction of PR in local government.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

I indicated earlier that it might be necessary to put a time limit on speeches in the debate. Unfortunately, there will now have be a time limit of three minutes per speech.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour 11:08 am, 2nd July 1999

I welcome the minister's statement and the debate.

I was especially interested in the working group to consider the renewal of democracy, which will, of course, include PR. I look forward to examining the report that Jack McConnell and COSLA will produce.

The minister said that the Local Government Committee will consider a range of issues. They will include the relationship between the Parliament and local government, the operation of a covenant, a joint conference and arrangements for local elections. I look forward to scrutinising closely the consultation document that the Executive will eventually present.

The first meeting of the Local Government Committee was this week. As convener, I was heartened by the experience of committee members. Some had worked in public service; some had been local councillors; and some, like me, had done both jobs. What was more heartening was their 100 per cent commitment to local government. That is a clear recognition that local government is more important than this Parliament in the daily lives of our constituents, because this Parliament does not deliver services to people directly. That is the remit of local government.

The committee's role is wide-ranging: to report on and consider matters relating to local government, the Scottish Administration, and the Executive. At first, second and even third glance, that is an all-embracing remit. The committee, like others, also has the power to legislate. We will use that power sparingly, but-I hope-wisely.

The committee's priority is clearly the McIntosh report. I assure councillors and council employees that they need have no fear or anxiety about the committee's deliberations and recommendations on, and criticisms of the report.

I hope that the Executive will be reassured by that statement, but I want to make it clear that the committee is not a limb of the Executive; like all other committees, its responsibility is to Parliament and, ultimately, to the people of Scotland. However, we will take cognisance of what the Executive has to say.

The committee will seek the widest possible engagement with councillors and officials in the examination of the McIntosh proposals. There will be genuine consultation with community councils, tenants associations, providers and users of services, voluntary organisations and with Neil McIntosh and his colleagues. We know that local councils provide excellent services in our cities, towns and rural areas and that they seek to protect vulnerable people. The McIntosh report is not a vehicle for sucking local authorities' powers into the Parliament. The principle of subsidiarity should be applicable to the relationship between this Parliament, local government and the communities that we seek to serve. However, no institution or organisation should be immune from tough-minded examination or be afraid of change or reform, as long as that change has been based on genuine consultation and fair representation.

The committees are independent of other groups, but no doubt many people will lobby us. Perhaps I should declare an interest: I have known Neil McIntosh for many years. He has 100 per cent commitment to public service. I thank him for his report and, like other members of the Local Government Committee, I look forward to scrutinising it thoroughly.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party 11:12 am, 2nd July 1999

Yesterday was a day to reflect on Scotland and our sense of who we are, from the fine speech made by Donald Dewar to Sheena Wellington's excellent rendition of "A Man's a Man For a' That" and Amy Linekar's witty poem. Even last night, Shirley Manson of Garbage got into the spirit of the day when she introduced a song that reflects the Scottish psyche, aptly titled, "Only Happy When it Rains".

Another sense of Scotland that was reflected yesterday was the intimacy and accessibility of government of all levels. Scotland is a small place. I took time out from the celebrations to speak to Norman Murray, the new president of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. He left me in no doubt as to what COSLA wants: an independent review of finance.

I pay tribute to the McIntosh commission for its fine work. It should be a matter of great pride to the many hard-working members of the commission that they created the consensus that has emerged in the debate. Nowhere is the consensus greater than on finance. In all the debates before the McIntosh report was published, finance was raised time and again. I have yet to find a local authority politician, officer or user group who does not believe that it is absolutely necessary that local authority finance be subject to an independent review. I regret that McIntosh was not given a brief to examine finance-reading between the lines of the report, I think that the authors agree with me.

I regret also that the minister has chosen not to accept the recommendation for a review. If McIntosh is to have any meaning, a review will be necessary sooner rather than later. I do not think that the minister's proposal of "pressing ahead vigorously with action on a number of fronts"- however useful that might be-is an adequate response. Our fear is that we are seeing a fudge on finance. We do not want to see tinkering at the edges; we want a full review. Donald Gorrie is right: issues relating to the initiatives are not mutually exclusive of an independent review.

We are in an extremely serious situation. Scottish local government has taken a battering in the past decade, from local government reorganisation to huge expenditure cuts. Scotland's local authorities are £968 million worse off after the first three years of the Labour Government than they were under the Tories.

We need to consider other reforms in that financial context. Local government has an uncertain financial future. We know that the projections for 2001-02 highlight a potential real-terms shortfall of £170 million in the amount that local government will need to sustain services that it is required to provide.

The Executive might be able to address some of those problems in the budget bill-when it arrives-but we still need to highlight them in today's debate.

Photo of Fiona Hyslop Fiona Hyslop Scottish National Party

We heard about a review of capital finance; will the minister consider the clawback rules on housing and the general services capital programme? Will the capital finance review include a review of those matters?

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour 11:16 am, 2nd July 1999

I welcome the McIntosh report and the minister's initial response.

I have three main points. First, the financial settlement that was imposed on local government following its reorganisation was manifestly unfair to local authorities with high concentrations of multiple deprivation. That reorganisation-partisan in nature-resulted in disruption and major reductions in services in many parts of Scotland; it affected the operation of voluntary organisations and community services, as well as that of local councils. I was working with Neil McIntosh at the time of reorganisation and I know the efforts that he and his colleagues in local government were obliged to make to combat the uncertainty generated by an illogical and ill thought through reorganisation.

The most lasting damage was done in terms of finance. The current system for allocation of local government finance takes little account of need: cash is distributed on a population basis, almost irrespective of the social and economic circumstances of the different localities in Scotland. We need to address that unfairness as a matter of urgency. We cannot allow two or three years more of misery in places such as West Dunbartonshire, which has the highest unemployment of any local authority area in Scotland.

Financial allocations should be determined on the basis of clear principles and need must be at the core of the discussions. There will be winners and losers in any distribution change.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

However, debate on local government finance has been stymied because, until now, Government has not led the way. It is difficult for individual authorities to agree to pass resources elsewhere. The current system cannot continue if we want to tackle social exclusion as well as ensure the continued delivery of quality local services for everyone in Scotland. Changing the distribution system would be the biggest contribution that the minister could make to addressing the problems of social exclusion.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

Secondly, I want to highlight a weakness in the McIntosh report, in paragraphs 60 to 62, which deal with local government and the wider public sector. We should work from the presumption that local government, properly accountable to local people, should meet local needs. If it is in the public interest that an appointed body should deliver a function rather than local government, the justification for that choice should be made against well-understood criteria.

I welcome the fact that there will be a periodic review. However, we should start from the principle that local democracy is crucial to the management of public services. As someone who has served on a health board as well as in local government, I am certain that the management of health service provision should be done by the health service rather than by local government.

However, there must be a much closer relationship between health services and local government services. For years, previous Governments denied any links between health and poverty. In doing so, they inhibited effective action on health by councils, the services of which could make a huge contribution to the improvement of health standards. Representation is not enough: we need joint working, more imaginative ways of working and recognition of the leading role of local government in co-ordinating the planning of services across the locality. Partnership arrangements have done much to achieve that, but we need to move further.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

I am sorry Kenny, but I do not have time. As part of the reform of local government and the widening of democratic accountability, we need to go beyond what has already been achieved.

Finally, I would like to make a few comments on proportional representation.

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour

I detect no upsurge or pressure for the creation of list councillors in Scotland; nobody wants that or sees it as part of the panacea. I think that Donald Gorrie put an argument against proportional representation of which we must take proper account.

The implementation of proportional representation runs the risk of handing power from the electors to the party managers. Remember Portillo-the people of Enfield threw him out. Some systems of proportional representation will not allow the voters that same opportunity. If we are to have proper, accountable local government, it is vital that the voters can get rid of people who are not doing the business, and that is the central aspect of democratic accountability-and one which we should sustain.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat 11:20 am, 2nd July 1999

I firmly welcome the McIntosh report. I will not go over many of the issues that have already been discussed, particularly those raised by my colleague Donald Gorrie, who represented the Liberal Democrat interest.

I will focus on just two of the recommendations. The first one that I wish to examine, following on from Des McNulty's speech, is that:

"proportional representation be introduced for local government elections . . . the subject be given immediate and urgent study, with a view to legislation which should take effect in time to govern the next council elections in 2002".

The second recommendation that I will examine is:

"an independent inquiry into local government finance should be instituted immediately."

I am becoming a little wary of some of the comments that have been made today about proportional representation. I will also quote from the partnership agreement of 13 May, so that we are absolutely clear what we are talking about:

"We will ensure that the publication of the final McIntosh recommendations is followed by an immediate programme of change including progress on electoral reform . . . we will keep under review wider issues of local government finance."

Donald Gorrie is absolutely right. One can have day-to-day reviews of distribution of local government finance, but that does not stop one putting into place a long-term review, so that the whole issue can be examined. It is fundamentally wrong that 20 per cent of local government income is gained locally and 80 per cent is dependent on sources elsewhere. I am surprised that the Executive seems to take a view of reform except when it comes to monetary issues, and I want to flag that up.

We must have an immediate commitment to electoral reform and a long-term review of government finance. Audrey Findlay, the leader of the Liberal Democrat-led Aberdeenshire Council, to whom I have spoken, is firmly of that view. As Brian Adam said, almost all views from local government and COSLA are the same-they want a review, and it is about time that we delivered it.

Photo of Gil Paterson Gil Paterson Scottish National Party 11:23 am, 2nd July 1999

I pay tribute to the minister and congratulate her on her statement. It was a wide-ranging statement, and very welcome.

Cabinet-style local government-or, to be more accurate, the role of an accountable executive in local government-has been one of the main debates, both pre and post-McIntosh. The functions of these new-style executives and their interrelationship with an elected provost-or mayor, as some Labour members choose to call them-have generated many column inches of copy in our national press. That is one of the issues that interest the public most.

Of course, some of the people who are particularly interested are those who have been badly affected by the present system and who may have lobbied a committee or even a full council to find that the decision has already been made. What they see is merely a rubber-stamp exercise. In many ways, local government is very unaccountable.

Of course, at election time, we are all accountable, and councillors and councils are accountable. Councillors are, indeed, accountable at surgeries. However, we can all think of examples-and I am sure that most of us have been involved in such situations-of when perhaps a parent comes along who believes that a bad or wrong decision has been made about, say, a local school closure. They go to an education committee where they see no real debate and where a decision is ratified-which was, in fact, taken previously, behind closed doors. After that, what can they do? They can go to the surgery and complain to their councillor. They might be reassured or placated, but they will probably be ignored. I doubt whether they would vote for that councillor again. That would be detrimental to local government, because one such incident might blow an otherwise very good councillor out of the water. In those situations, it is the community that loses out.

The difficulty is that councillors have been whipped into line; it is not necessarily the councillor who is wrong, but the system. Is the real reason for voter apathy that the public can no longer influence decisions when the elections are over and so feel powerless? The McIntosh report attempts to address that very problem. Under the McIntosh recommendations, decisions will be open and transparent and people will understand why they have been made. Paragraph 103 on page 28 of the report says:

"

Our recommendation to councils is that they should review their own procedures with the principal objective of ensuring that policy proposals and matters for decision by the councils are subject to open debate; and that the council may effectively scrutinise the actions of the leadership and hold it to account for its performance: that is to say that these matters should be debated in public and there should be opportunity for them to be examined and questioned, without unnecessary constraint imposed by a party whip."

The McIntosh report has kicked the policy of elected provosts into touch. We welcome that very much and I hope that the minister takes it into account. Such a policy goes against the grain of the McIntosh report-God help us if we have a reincarnated Pat Lally in Glasgow.

We support the findings of the McIntosh commission and believe that the recommendations will form the basis of the rebirth of local government. However, as other members have said, we must refrain from cherry picking. Kenny Gibson made that important point well. As the McIntosh report comes as a package, let us take it in that way and start building a new local government for Scotland in Scotland.

Photo of Malcolm Chisholm Malcolm Chisholm Labour 11:27 am, 2nd July 1999

I welcome both the minister's statement and her robust defence of the socialist principle of property tax and of the democratic principle of decisions about local government finance being made here. In line with that, I hope that the McIntosh commission's recommendations will be seen not as set in stone, but as a useful starting point for the debate on the renewal of local democracy.

We should all record our thanks to the commission. Having been the local government minister in its gestation, I probably should not say that the commission was well chosen and had a well-defined double-pronged remit, but I will anyway. The first part of its remit has been brilliantly discharged in the assertion of the principle of power sharing and in the recommendations of a covenant and a joint conference. Although the commission establishes subsidiarity as the fundamental principle, that does not mean that we should not give strategic direction to local government. More controversially, I believe that money should be ring-fenced for vital projects such as the carers strategy and the strategy against violence against women.

I feel some disappointment with the second part of the commission's remit about responding to people. I welcome the report's recommendations on community councils, as there are many excellent ones in my constituency. I also welcome the minister's statement that we need to go much further in involving local communities in local decisions. We have to start with the fundamental principle of a more responsive local government with a strengthened role for local councillors as representatives and champions of local people. All local groups-such as tenants groups, community groups and community councils-must be involved in that.

It is in the light of that fundamental principle that I hope that the debate about executives and PR systems will take place, because some of those systems make for less responsive local government. I hope that we will have a full and frank debate about that. If we are going to have an executive system there has to be, as the commission admits, a different kind of whipping system so that back-bench councillors can put forward the views of their communities. I am glad that the commission has recommended that and hope that the Executive will take it on board.

With more proportional systems we must preserve the link between a councillor and an area; a closed list PR system, for example, would result in far more power going to parties, with councillors becoming far less responsive to local communities.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Leader, Scottish National Party

Given that the McIntosh commission was so expertly chosen and had such wise people on it, will Mr Chisholm accept that those wise people must believe that there is a substantial argument in favour of the recommendation that local government elections should be held between national elections rather than on the same day as them?

Photo of Malcolm Chisholm Malcolm Chisholm Labour

I do not think that that is one of the commission's fundamental recommendations. However, I support it because I agree that it is important that people should focus on local government in local government elections. In the recent local government elections, people focused on the Scottish Parliament.

We should approach all the recommendations with an open mind. The McIntosh commission has given us an excellent foundation. I hope that the Local Government Committee and this chamber will be able to have a full, frank and open debate about its recommendations so that we renew democracy at a local level, just as we intend to renew it at this national level.

Photo of Robert Brown Robert Brown Liberal Democrat 11:31 am, 2nd July 1999

I, too, welcome the McIntosh commission report and Wendy Alexander's speech in support of it. Her speech was stylish but I am bound to say that, as one listened to the detail and examined it afterwards, the substance appeared to retreat a little.

On the voluntary sector, we live in a pluralist society and the aims of the Executive and of the commission are to enhance that part of it. That means not only working with local government but making sure that the voluntary sector in Scottish society is enhanced and protected.

Over the years, I have had some involvement with citizens advice bureaux. An awful lot of the time of the management committees of those bodies-and many others, I am sure-is taken up with complicated negotiations with local government and central Government to secure core funding. An example of that-it has been in the press during the past few days-is the Bath Street CAB, which faces a major financial crisis. It is important that we protect the financial structures and organisational independence of the voluntary sector. If the sector has an agenda that does not quite fit the objectives of central and local government, it is important that we recognise that that agenda is equally valid; it should not affect its financial support.

The issue of long-term financial support for local government has been mentioned. I support the comments made by Donald Gorrie and others that, as well as changes in the short term, we need a longer-term review of the system of local government finance.

An awful lot of fluff is talked about proportional representation; indeed, we heard some from Des McNulty earlier. We need accountable local authorities-accountability means that we must be able to get shot of them when they do not do their job. It is no doubt purely by accident that Labour has controlled the vast bulk of authorities in Scotland over the past few years. There have been all sorts of difficulties in one or two of them. There have been some good ones and some bad ones but, under the current system, there is an inability to get rid of any of them.

Some PR systems are better than others. We need a system, such as the single transferable vote, which retains the local link with the councillor and allows the elector to choose who is to speak for them; it also allows an element of independence and breaks any excessive party rule.

Unless that central issue is dealt with, we will have problems in taking seriously some of the other issues. Against that background, the failure today by the Executive to give an assurance that there will be legislation on PR before the next local government elections is a major fault in the Government's proposals.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

Would the member support the withdrawal of the Liberal Democrats from the coalition if the Government failed to introduce PR in time for the next local authority elections?

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP 11:35 am, 2nd July 1999

It has been with some frustration and anger that I have listened to some of the contributions to the debate-especially the one made by the minister. I have been a serving councillor for the past seven years and I remind the chamber that the background to the McIntosh inquiry has been seven years of the withdrawal of funding, of the undermining of local democracy and of the undermining of authorities' ability to serve their citizens. I remind the minister that-especially in the past three years-my city of Glasgow has been hammered. Glasgow, which is clearly the most poverty-stricken city in Scotland, has suffered budget cuts of £200 million and the loss of 4,000 jobs.

Much has been said about the fact that we formally assumed our powers only yesterday but I remind the minister that the Labour Government assumed its powers more than two years ago. In that time, it has done absolutely nothing to address the problems of poverty-stricken areas such as Glasgow. Those areas have faced horrendous cuts as a result of both the withdrawal of central Government support for local authorities and the maintenance of the completely unfair and unworkable local government reorganisation, which especially penalised the City of Glasgow.

Why, after two years of the Labour Government, has the capital receipt payback rule not been rescinded? Why, after two years, have the regulations on the retention of rates within the City of Glasgow not been changed? If those regulations were changed, it would allow additional expenditure this year of some £60 million. I am not talking about legislation, which would not be required; we are looking for a change in regulations.

It was with a sense of disappointment that I listened to the minister's speech, because although the overriding concern of McIntosh was the modernisation of local authorities-he makes some worthwhile and welcome suggestions about improving their transparency and accountability-he makes the point at the start and end of the report that there should be an independent review of local government finance.

This debate is just talk unless there is a review that results in the return of financial powers to local authorities and that improves their ability to deliver services to our pensioners, to our young people and to our disabled. The McIntosh recommendations will not deliver improvements in any of those areas unless there are additional resources to go with them. Will the minister join me in condemning the Labour Government for its failure in the past two years to address the horrendous problems that I have spoken about?

Photo of Kate Maclean Kate Maclean Labour 11:39 am, 2nd July 1999

I hope that Tommy Sheridan will forgive me if, like the minister, I do not join him in condemning the Labour Government.

I welcome this opportunity to discuss the McIntosh report. I imagine that chapter 4, which contains recommendations about the electoral system, will be the most hotly debated part of the report in this chamber, in council chambers and in the media. Unfortunately, that will probably deflect from some of the other issues that the commission discussed. I say unfortunately, because although PR will exercise the minds of politicians and journalists, I suspect that it is the issue of least interest to the general public. As long as the link is maintained between councillors and the community, people are more concerned about what local government does than about how it is elected.

I agree with everything that Des McNulty said about local government finance. After local government reorganisation, Dundee was left in a similar position to that of Glasgow-in terms of poverty indicators and league tables, the two cities vie for first place.

That is why I welcome the fact that, although finance was not included in the remit of the McIntosh commission, the commission recognised the importance of the way in which local government was financed and recommended a review, particularly of the distribution formula, which would be welcomed in my area-Dundee City Council has campaigned on that issue for a long time.

Photo of Kate Maclean Kate Maclean Labour

I have limited time, Bruce, so I would rather not give way.

Although the McIntosh report covers many important issues, the key section is chapter 6-"The Voice of the People". I welcome the recommendations as far as they go but, like Wendy Alexander, I do not think that they go far enough. When community councils operate well-as they do in some parts of Dundee West-they ably articulate the views and concerns of local people.

Community councils are not, however, the only representative bodies in communities. In some areas they do not exist or are less relevant than tenants organisations or other local groups. That is particularly so in areas where groups have been brought together to combat poverty and deprivation and to improve and regenerate communities. I hope that ways can be found in which to give representative groups equal status in the democratic process. That is only briefly mentioned-in paragraph 164 in chapter six-and I think that the proposal should be strengthened.

Finally, I hope that local government will not be used as a political football in this chamber as it has been in other forums in the past. I was a bit disappointed by Brian Adam's contribution in that respect. People come into contact with local government 24 hours a day from cradle to grave, and the majority of that contact is positive and beneficial. Councils of every political persuasion or none provide excellent services to the people that they represent.

I hope that the McIntosh report can be seen as the first step towards strengthening the role of local government and that this Parliament and local government can work in partnership to achieve that aim. There will be no partnership if local government is a subordinate partner, as was seen to be the case in the past. The partnership must be equal and must be built on trust, understanding and common goals.

Photo of Colin Campbell Colin Campbell Scottish National Party 11:41 am, 2nd July 1999

I rise with a note of dissent-my colleague Kenneth Gibson is trading in the metaphorical trench warfare equipment of his Glasgow council experiences. I feel that we are all afloat in a sea of consensus that is unlike anything on which we have floated for a very long time. I will strike a discordant note in referring to the fudge that Kenny mentioned in relation to the power of general competence.

The minister's speech was beautifully delivered, but here and there the voice fell and the wording changed. In other areas of interest in which the minister is enthusiastic we hear phrases such as "happy to endorse", "inform the process and lead", "I accept them all", "sympathetic" and "committed". Then we get to general competence. Ms Alexander said:

"I want to consult carefully on the case for a power of general competence."

That is just a wee bit canny and cautious-I hope more by accident than by design.

She also spoke about consultation. Those of us who have been out in the world in local authorities-or even as citizens before we ever got into politics-have come against consultation head on. As has been mentioned, when a council says that it will close a school, it has a statutory obligation to consult. The consultation is carried out; the council listens and closes the school anyway. Consultation has a bad name. We all have a heavy responsibility to ensure that we make consultation a meaningful process that draws people into the decision-making process.

We endorse the McIntosh commission recommendations because the essence of the report was in the Scottish National party's 1999 general election manifesto and in our 1999 local government manifesto; indeed, much of it was in our submission to the commission. The principle of subsidiarity is important and the power of general competence is part of that. I conclude by saying simply that our commitment to real democracy will be judged by the extent to which we devolve power down the system away from ourselves.

Photo of Helen Eadie Helen Eadie Labour 11:45 am, 2nd July 1999

I congratulate the Minister for Communities on her statement and welcome its sensitivity. I agree with the minister's praise for the McIntosh team and praise also the dedication of the many councillors and officials who were involved in the McIntosh report.

Our challenge in this chamber is to demonstrate, against the background of perceived threat, that we are totally committed to local government. Our mission will be to persuade local government that we have an opportunity for a fresh start and that the two organs-local government and the Scottish Parliament-can work together in real partnership.

I welcome the minister's emphasis on renewal rather than legislative change and support Donald Gorrie's comment about building on consensus, which is vital. From what the minister said and the way in which she said it, I sense that she understands and is sensitive to the issues that confront local authorities.

Our mission will be to reassure local authorities that we recognise that what makes them different from other agencies makes them unique: the fact that local authorities are elected and can claim the same democratic mandate as this Parliament; the fact that they have the power to tax, albeit that they are constrained from doing so in various ways, and that that power requires accountability through the ballot box, setting local authorities apart from every other body except Government; and the fact that local authorities are multipurpose and provide a uniquely wide range of services to the community.

Local authorities perceive significant, imminent change as a threat. They see the Parliament as an institution that will further erode their autonomy. Proportional representation must acknowledge the different views across Scotland. I share Des McNulty's concern. However, I believe that if there is an open, honest and transparent debate, council members will accept the wisdom of this Parliament.

There is one key omission from the McIntosh report. We have made the connections between the Scottish Parliament and local government, but we have failed to set up connections with the Westminster Parliament and the European Parliament. There has been major apathy towards Europe across Scotland. Europe controls and influences our lives a great deal. While I welcome the McIntosh report, I hope that this Parliament will go beyond it and address such issues.

Finally, finance is critical. Within two or three years, the point will be reached in the area of Fife in which I was a councillor where there is absolutely no capital for various capital projects.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

I apologise to members who have not been called to speak. Members will, however, be aware that that is an area that will be investigated by the Procedures Committee. There is about four minutes each for the Tory and SNP winding-up speeches.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative 11:48 am, 2nd July 1999

Local government should be effective, efficient and responsive to local needs. I doubt that any member of this chamber would disagree with that statement. We should be grateful to McIntosh and his colleagues for identifying the way in which local government is falling short of those aims. There is no doubt that, despite the best efforts of many people, local government is falling short of the standards that we would like to impose in partnership with local authorities.

We must examine the membership of councils. Members who served with me on City of Glasgow Council will agree that many of the council's members were drawn from the ranks of the unemployed, housewives and people who worked for other local authorities, together with the occasional person who ran their own business. I am not saying for one moment that there is anything wrong with those sections of the community, but they are hardly representative. We must make every effort to make local government more inclusive and to encourage more people to stand.

How do we do that? We must examine the way that councils are run. Few can doubt that the present cumbrous and laborious structure of many local authorities is a disincentive for people to enter local government. It is pleasing that the McIntosh commission suggested that the cabinet system might be considered. The report also suggests that the time of the full-time councillor has perhaps come and that the councillor should be remunerated accordingly. Conservative members would argue that that must be self-financing and that it must be achieved by a reduction in the number of councillors.

McIntosh identifies the real problem of local government as voter apathy. Why are people not interested in councils? Mike Rumbles put his finger on it when he pointed out-I do not know which local authority he had in mind-that 20 per cent of local government finance is financed by the local authority and the electors in that area. In my experience the proportion is usually much smaller; for example, Glasgow is somewhere in the region of 14 per cent. When there is no pecuniary interest, people are reluctant to involve themselves in the affairs of local authorities, which is bad. Local authorities should be subject to scrutiny and electoral questioning to a much greater extent than they have been up to now.

I think Disraeli said:

"The ability to tax and please is a gift not given to man."

Various experiments have been carried out about how local government finance should be reorganised. None of the experiments have been successful. That brings me to the conclusion that the only solution to that difficulty is to recognise that some of the powers of local government-I know that there will be resistance to this-should be taken from them. Education, which is one of the big spenders, should, possibly, be administered by this Parliament. That would enable local government to look more closely at the powers with which it has been left.

Photo of Elaine Murray Elaine Murray Labour

In view of the earlier comments made by Mr Mundell, I wonder if Bill Aitken will outline how rural schools will be protected should education be centred in Edinburgh.

Photo of Bill Aitken Bill Aitken Conservative

I do not recall David Mundell contributing to this debate. The point raised by Dr Murray would be a matter for the Parliament. Basically, local government finance is a burning issue that we must consider. If the education function was removed and dealt with here, it would enable local government to concentrate its mind somewhat better than it is able to do at the moment.

Photo of Bruce Crawford Bruce Crawford Scottish National Party 11:53 am, 2nd July 1999

I think that we can all be confident that everybody in local government will recognise that the consultation process undertaken by the McIntosh commission has been an exemplar in terms of active listening and deserved outcome. It would be too much to expect everyone to be fully satisfied with the outcome of the commission's work. The least that we can expect is for all, especially the Government, to give its findings full, detailed and proper consideration.

From the minister's statement, I am glad to see that the Executive has, for the most part, embraced the spirit of the commission's findings. Having said that, I am concerned, like others, about the departure from the report of an independent inquiry into local government finance. I am disappointed that the Executive has not considered building on the commission's report by taking the imaginative step of announcing how it may deal with community planning powers for local government. The minister will be aware that for the past year, five local authorities-I will not name them because of time restrictions-have been battling the authorities in that area. I hope that the deputy minister will deal with that in his summing up and tell us when we can expect that area to be considered.

I will comment quickly on the prospect of proportional representation, local government, pay and conditions for councillors and the potential for executives. The Executive is be applauded for not allowing the self-interest factions, which have been so vociferous in the past 10 days, to deflect them from the path of improved democratisation in local government. It is good to see recognition of the fact that changes are badly required in political decision making and remuneration.

It is a great pity that the political dinosaurs who currently form the administration of Perth and Kinross Council do not have the foresight to grasp this culture of change. That unholy coalition of Tory, Labour and Liberal councillors recently refused to endorse a report from a forward-looking chief executive who recommended a review of the council's political decision-making process and remuneration packages for councillors. Perhaps the minister would have a word in the ear of the Labour provost, the Tory depute provost and, while she is at it, the Liberal depute leader of the administration, and see if she can drag them into this century before we reach the next.

Impossible tasks aside, I would like quickly to turn to the matter of local government finance. I say in all sincerity that, in terms of laying down a solid foundation for the future and creating a real and meaningful relationship between local government and the Parliament, all the good intentions could be in danger of being undermined if we do not have an independent review.

We need an independent review with a brief to establish a needs-based methodology that assesses the demographic and social profile of an authority, and not just on the basis of per head of population and geographical location. The issue is not just about how the cake is distributed: it is also about the size of the cake-the amount of money that is available to local authorities. That needs to be taken on board.

McIntosh raised that issue in his report because of the din that was made by local authorities across Scotland. Indeed, that din was converted into fine words by COSLA in its document about local government in Scotland, which was endorsed earlier this year by all of Scotland's former council leaders, including Frank McAveety, who is now Deputy Minister for Local Government, Kate Maclean, Tom McCabe, Ian Welsh, Peter Peacock, and, I have no doubt, many other councillors here. I hope that they will continue to lobby in the same way that they did when they signed up to that contract.

This has been an interesting and lively debate. I will make one final point, because I can see the Deputy Presiding Officer looking at me. It is crucial that we agree to four-year terms for councillors, but it is also crucial that we resist robustly the idea of having council elections on the same day as the parliamentary elections. That would not be good for democracy and the empowerment of local authorities in this country.

Photo of Frank McAveety Frank McAveety Labour 11:57 am, 2nd July 1999

I am delighted to be standing here as the surrogate of Wendy Alexander. For the benefit of members I hope to sum up the debate, which I think has been helpful to the response that we must have on McIntosh.

Like many others, I pay tribute to the work of Neil and the members of the committees and for their consultation across local government, where I previously existed. I was aware that some members might raise an issue that Mr Crawford raised, which was that we served different roles than those from which we speak today. It is important that that is recognised in the contribution.

I am delighted to have served in local government in the largest authority in Scotland. I depend on local government to deliver good-quality services for people like myself and my family, as, I am sure, do many people present today. My experience was in the quiet, non-eventful and placid political culture of Glasgow City Council. I am delighted to hear the consensual comments made by many of my former colleagues but, not surprisingly, Mr Sheridan decided to change-again-and continued with the single transferable speech that he has made on every occasion during his seven years in the city chambers.

McIntosh stated that local government serves the people and represents the community. Everyone present welcomes those features of local government. In the ministerial statement we made it clear that we want local government to serve the people and to represent their communities. I hope that local government is up to the challenge and rises to it, and ensures that we work in partnership to make a difference for all Scotland.

The issue is not necessarily about delivering services, no matter how important that is at a local level. The issues concern a vision of what local government can achieve-as we have heard today-when it thinks more strategically and in the long term about the needs of its communities, of how it serves the people and how it represents them. For example, it means not just thinking about the housing of the present, but the making of sustainable neighbourhoods for the future.

The issue is not about the service that existed previously. As Norman Murray said this week about the concerns of the past 20 years, local government is almost like the drunken relative at the party. However, it will no longer be the drunken relative at the party. We will drink with local government to make a difference for the future. I say that strictly as a teetotaller, Mr Deputy Presiding Officer. I admit that certain other members enjoy themselves much more fully, although they cannot match the enjoyment and excitement of Alex Salmond's household as he watches Ceefax at one o'clock in the morning. Maybe I will try that for enjoyment the next time that I am up for a wee bit of fun.

Local government should not only address the problem of poverty, but consider the role that it can play in achieving change. I want to address the main points that Mr Sheridan made, because he made them to me for seven years as a member of City of Glasgow Council. He was wrong throughout that time and he is wrong today. He is not the only person who cares about poverty and deprivation across Scotland. His party received fewer votes in the city of Glasgow even than the Conservatives, yet he claims to represent everyone in Glasgow. He ignores the series of initiatives that the Labour Government has introduced over the past two years to tackle long-term poverty and need.

Where was he during the debate about the minimum wage, the working families tax credit-

Photo of Frank McAveety Frank McAveety Labour

I will give way to Tommy in a minute; I am always delighted to take an intervention that helps me with my own speech. The schools investment strategy and the largest-ever increase in child benefit should be welcomed, but I have yet to hear Mr Sheridan do so in a debate.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

In 1997, the proportion of schoolchildren in Glasgow who were receiving free school meals because they were living in poverty-stricken families was, as Mr McAveety knows, 37 per cent. By 1999, it had risen to 43 per cent. Why has poverty increased under the Labour Government?

Photo of Frank McAveety Frank McAveety Labour

Mr Sheridan takes a very narrow perspective, but I will answer his question. The roots of poverty go back beyond 1997. Families have experienced mass unemployment and a lack of employment opportunity; communities have been scarred. It takes longer than two years to retrieve that situation. It is okay for members of the SNP to support Mr Sheridan in this debate-as they have often done in debates in this chamber-but the record since this Government came into office in 1997 shows that it has made a sustained attack on child poverty. I am delighted to say that we stand on that record.

Photo of Frank McAveety Frank McAveety Labour

I have told Mr Salmond why it is increasing, in case he was not listening-that is a very common problem of his. The roots of poverty go back much further than two years.

Photo of Frank McAveety Frank McAveety Labour

I will give way to Mr Salmond in a moment. Can he say what measures this Government has not taken to deal with child poverty? I have identified a series of measures, which the Labour Government, in conjunction with its Labour colleagues in local Government, will implement to tackle the problem.

Photo of Frank McAveety Frank McAveety Labour

I hear Mr Sheridan say that the measures are not working. Has Mr Sheridan rejected the social inclusion partnership money for the greater Pollok area? Has he rejected the investment in secondary schools that has been made right across Glasgow? Does he recognise the investment in the baseline assessments for local government-4.8 per cent more than in the past two years-and the commitment that was made to local government in the comprehensive spending review? There is an opportunity to change. If Mr Sheridan wants to hold a fixed view, along with his colleagues in the SNP-there seems to be collusion between them on this issue-that is fine, but we want to move forward.

Photo of Frank McAveety Frank McAveety Labour

I will give way in a moment to Mr Salmond, but I want to continue.

We have a key commitment-

Several members:

Give way.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

The minister has indicated that he will allow Mr Salmond to intervene shortly.

Photo of Frank McAveety Frank McAveety Labour

I may consider doing so later in my speech.

Mr Deputy Presiding Officer, local government seeks parity of esteem. The statement that the Minister for Communities made today indicates that we, too, seek that. It is rather like a brother and sister relationship. I say that with due respect to Wendy Alexander, who this week was disgracefully attacked by the Conservatives in a press release, which made reference to the relationship between her and her brother, Douglas. We want to rise above that puerile contribution. [Applause.]

Like a brother and sister, local government and this new Parliament have something in common. We want to get on, but we sometimes have blazing rows. However, like a brother and sister, we can make up. In the first few hours of this new Parliament, and over the next few years, we need to ensure that we bind together the family of government, so that the Parliament and local government can make a difference. Our Parliament is only hours old.

Photo of Frank McAveety Frank McAveety Labour

I will let you in in a moment, Mr Salmond.

We are debating an issue which is about real people, real places and real things. It does not involve endless debates about constitutional settlements, or saying that the idea was fixed in time from May 1999. It is not about making the same point over and over again, saying, "If only Scotland had voted a different way." It is not, Mr Salmond, about endless reruns of "The Great Escape", with John Swinney as the dashing Steve McQueen, or Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz" on the yellow brick road-with due respect to my friend and colleague Dorothy-Grace Elder.

I wish to conclude on four guiding principles. [MEMBERS: "Give way."] I will give way to Mr Salmond.

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Leader, Scottish National Party

Can I drag the deputy minister back to the subject that he is trying to get away from? [Applause.] Poverty has deep, underlying causes. Every member in this chamber will agree with that, but the question that he was asked was why it has been increasing over the last two years, according to the measurement which Mr Sheridan gave. It is a legitimate question, whether asked by a member of the Scottish Socialist party, by the Scottish National party or by any member of this chamber. I suggest that the minister stops dodging it and starts answering it.

Photo of Frank McAveety Frank McAveety Labour

I hope that I am allowed the time to reiterate what I said earlier, which Mr Salmond seems to have ignored. [MEMBERS: "Answer the question."] I am trying to answer the question, if members would allow me to do so. The deep, underlying causes of poverty go back long before 1997, which Mr Salmond accepted. The Labour Government has engaged in a series of measures-and will continue to do so-to tackle the underlying causes of poverty. I have already mentioned the series of policy developments that we have made. I do not wish to repeat them, and if members do not like them, tough-they are actually happening.

I recognise that a consensus is developing on the principles underlying our response to the McIntosh report. This chamber wholeheartedly supports the idea of making a commitment to ensure ethical standards in public office. We are committed to identifying ways in which leadership can make a difference at a local level, irrespective of party or individual. Each and every one of us has a responsibility on that. We want a full and honest debate on democratic renewal, electoral systems and how to support local government in its job. It is important for us to engage in that process. COSLA has asked for nothing less.

Photo of Frank McAveety Frank McAveety Labour

On partnership, there is a shared agenda for trying to ensure excellence and achievement. It is about recognising that we can move together, not about centralising powers, a proposal which some Tory members have put forward as a principle for education. It is about recognising the impact that reorganisation has had on all authorities in Scotland: it was a botched and non-consultative reorganisation. In this chamber, we have a vision of a good council flourishing and a weaker council being supported and developed.

My opinion is that an agenda for excellence is a noble challenge. I think that, together, we can make the difference. I welcome the contributions from across the chamber today-no matter how heated some of the exchanges were-which were made to ensure that we in the Scottish Parliament use our role to support and develop local government, and that local government recognises our role in setting broad parameters for governance in Scotland. I hope that we can build the family of Government together, and that we can make a difference for the future.