I am delighted to open the stage 3 debate on the European Charter of Local Self-Government (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill. First, I thank all those who have contributed to the legislative process, including those who provided evidence on my draft proposal back in 2018; those who gave evidence at stage 1; the Local Government and Communities Committee, for its scrutiny of the bill; and the clerks and staff of the non-government bills unit, who provided a highly professional, impartial and very supportive role throughout the process. I also thank Christine O’Neill QC, who expertly drafted the bill.
I thank the cabinet secretary for her enthusiastic and constructive engagement during the legislative process. We have had our honest disagreements over aspects of the bill but, by working together, we have improved and clarified aspects of it.
The bill deals with some tricky legal issues. Of course, it is one of two bills that we have considered recently that incorporate international treaties into domestic law, the other being the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill, which was passed last week, so the Government comes to the issue with some experience. I thank the Government for introducing the UNCRC bill, which of course I enthusiastically voted for and which helped to map out some of the complexities that were present in the drafting of my bill.
The fundamental purpose of my bill is to strengthen the standing of local government in the democratic governance of Scotland. It achieves that by incorporating into Scots law the substantive articles of the European Charter of Local Self-Government. The charter will thus become justiciable in the Scottish courts, and it will be possible to challenge any alleged violation of the charter by ministers. If a challenge is upheld, a declaration of incompatibility can be made by the Court of Session.
The charter is an international treaty of the Council of Europe. It was opened for signature on 15 October 1985, and its articles set out in international law a range of basic freedoms for local government across the 47 member states of the Council of Europe. The treaty was signed by the newly elected Labour Government in 1997 but, critically, it has no force in domestic law until it is incorporated, which is what the bill does. Scotland is in fact one of the very few countries that has not incorporated the charter. If the bill is passed this evening, I look forward to England and Wales following Scotland’s example.
Incorporation of the charter fulfils a long-standing call from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and civic Scotland. COSLA worked in the Council of Europe’s Congress of Local and Regional Authorities to develop the charter in the 1980s, and has been calling ever since for its adoption and incorporation. Civic Scotland highlighted the importance of the charter in the report of the Scottish Constitutional Convention in 1998, which set the parameters for the Scottish Parliament. It was clear that the principles contained in the charter should be, in its words, “embodied” and in particular that councils should have a power of general competence. That is guaranteed by article 4.2 of the charter, but is as yet unimplemented.
As far back as 1972, Jimmy Reid, in his famous rectorial address, argued:
“The power of Parliament has undoubtedly been eroded over past decades, with more and more authority being invested in the Executive. The power of local authorities has been and is being systematically undermined.”
Of course, when Jimmy Reid spoke those words in 1972, we were in the process of abolishing 196 very local town councils.
Unlike most European countries, our local democratic institutions have suffered from ad hoc reform, systematic disempowerment and neglect. We have one of the weakest systems of local government in Europe. We have so-called local councils in which, for example, Ballachulish and Wick are considered to be in the same local area.
Back in 1999 at the dawn of this Parliament, the McIntosh commission on local government observed:
“It could be said that Scotland today simply does not have a system of local government in the sense in which many other countries still do. The 32 councils now existing are, in effect, what in other countries are called county councils or provinces”.
As recently as 2013, COSLA argued:
“Scotland is one of the most centralised countries in Europe. It is no coincidence that our European neighbours are often more successful at improving outcomes, and have much greater turn out at elections.”
Those debates remain very much alive and are for another day. However, I hope that the bill is an opportunity to reset the important relationship between central and local government and to provide the local state with fundamental guarantees as to the scope of its powers and the opportunity for redress when national Government overreaches into the affairs of the local.
During stage 1, it was often observed that, in and of itself, the bill delivers modest practical change. That is correct. I am afraid to say that the voters of Scotland will struggle to relate to the bill. They may not even notice its passing, on today of all days. However, like incorporation of human rights, the bill embeds a set of new rules governing the relationship with the state, violation of which can lead to sanctions.
It is thus an enabler and promoter of a new awareness and culture of and a respect for the freedoms and powers of local government. I hope that it will not only encourage a culture shift, but that it will, in the future, curtail the potential excessive interference in the affairs of local government—from rate capping to council tax freezes—that has happened from time to time over the decades. I close on that controversial point.
That the Parliament agrees that the European Charter of Local Self-Government (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill be passed.
It is a great privilege to speak on behalf of the Government in the concluding moments of the process that I hope will see us pass this important bill.
This will be the final piece of legislation that I am directly involved with as Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government and as a member. It is a privilege to be elected to the Parliament. We are entrusted with making life better for the people and communities that we are here to represent. The bill will make significant and positive improvements for governance in Scotland because it sends a strong signal about the value that we place on local government.
Incorporating the European Charter of Local Self-Government into Scots law is of prime importance to COSLA, for which it has been a long-held objective. Tonight, we have the opportunity to realise that ambition. The member in charge of the bill has brought us to this stage and I commend Andy Wightman for his tenacity in pursuing the bill and for his long-held passion for local government.
At stage 1, I highlighted that there were some drafting issues that could be improved by technical amendments. I committed to engaging positively with Andy Wightman and his team to discuss what that might involve. I believe that we have accomplished that and that the collaborative approach to amendments has delivered the best and most effective legislation possible. I again thank Andy Wightman and his team for working closely with me and my officials to ensure that today is the day when the Parliament will, I hope unanimously, pass the bill.
I thank the Local Government and Communities Committee convener and members for their work in scrutinising the legislation and getting us to this stage. I also thank the committee clerks and the parliamentary staff who have helped steer the bill during a pandemic. Of course, I extend my thanks and appreciation to my bill team and private office staff who have worked tirelessly and so incredibly hard throughout the process on some very technical issues and amendments. They are a brilliant team and deserve this praise for keeping me right on the bill.
Although the bill is of obvious domestic importance, it will also align the standing of local government in Scotland with that in many other countries by securing a strong legal foundation for local government’s right to self-government. The bill places duties on the Scottish ministers to act compatibly with the charter articles and to promote local self-government. That is as it should be.
When I was appointed as cabinet secretary for local government almost three years ago, I had no doubt about the importance of subsidiarity and of local government. I have sought to ensure that our relationship is as strong as it can be. That is because, when that relationship is right, it is the people of Scotland who gain the most. That determination has always been shared by my valued colleague, the COSLA president Councillor Alison Evison.
That meaningful approach to partnership working has, by and large, been achieved and has been successful. Whether we have “Councillor” before our name or “MSP” after it, we are bound by the aims and vision to make our country fairer and more equal and to see our communities flourish.
That ambition drove COSLA, representing all 32 local authorities, and the Scottish Government to work in partnership to agree our national performance framework. It sets out the sort of country that we want Scotland to be: one that has wellbeing, kindness and dignity at its heart and which—regardless of which sphere of Government we come from—pursues those shared priorities to achieve the best possible outcomes for the people of Scotland.
Local and central government also share a commitment to subsidiarity and local democracy through the joint work of the local governance review. Last week saw the publication of the “Democracy Matters” materials, which will offer people a clearer sense of how their aspirations for local democracy could be realised.
Through the work of the review, we now also have proposals from councils across Scotland who have come forward to share ideas that can strengthen our local democracy and promote a shift of power that benefits our communities. An exploration of those ideas, involving all relevant public service partners, will offer the next Scottish Government a platform for dialogue with COSLA following the Scottish parliamentary elections.
Local and national Government also share the ambition to ensure that our children have the best possible start, and the work that we are doing together to expand the hours of flexible, high-quality child care provision is significant. That is driven by local and national Government working hand in glove, united by a focus on the positive impact that that will have on our youngest children and families.
The expansion, originally intended for August 2020, was paused last April to give local authorities the flexibility to focus on responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, from August 2021, all eligible children will benefit from at least 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare.
The pandemic has shown us once again the importance of collaboration, with local and national Government working together to respond to local circumstances in order to keep the most vulnerable in our society safe and essential services available.
Councils have played—and will continue to play—a central part in our response to the pandemic. From delivering critical childcare to supporting the vulnerable and paying lifeline business grants to help local businesses survive, the heroic efforts of the local government workforce have been remarkable.
As we move forward at pace with the vaccination roll out, we will see the balance shift from dealing with the immediate health crisis of Covid-19 to dealing with its enormous social and economic impact and its long-term effect on people’s wellbeing.
The journey of recovery and adaptation will be a central purpose for local government over the coming years. In that respect, local government, and Alison Evison in particular, has played a key part in the social renewal advisory board whose report set out actions to help guide that recovery. As part of our response to that, we will need to build on the incredible work that councils have done and embed the positive changes to ensure that our services best meet the ever-evolving needs of our people and communities.
I have set out how we have always sought to work in partnership with local government and how, when we do, the outcomes are positive. The bill will strengthen and build on that relationship, although the bill is not the end of the story, but the start of building something better. I believe that it can act as the catalyst to not only strengthen relationships but open up opportunities to discuss what kind of future we want and what more transformative policies we can introduce to improve the lives of the people of Scotland.
I hope that all members across the chamber will support the bill this evening and I underline my thanks to Andy Wightman for steering it to this stage.
I wish Aileen Campbell all the best in her future endeavours. We have definitely had a good relationship in the Parliament, particularly when we have seen eye to eye.
I am grateful to be given the opportunity to speak in today’s debate. I, too, thank Andy Wightman and others for their hard work and efforts on the bill.
The Scottish Conservatives support the overarching aims of the bill in seeking to strengthen protections for local government in Scotland.
With much of the day-to-day political focus on stories about the capitals of Europe, including London and Edinburgh, we often fail to recognise the important role that councils play in delivering for the Scottish people. Scotland’s councils are responsible for educating our children, maintaining our roads and looking after our elderly. They are an essential part of government and, as such, they deserve to be emboldened and safeguarded against there being excessive power in Edinburgh.
Part 1 of the European Charter of Local Self-Government is clear that public responsibilities should be carried out by the authorities that are closest to citizens. I whole-heartedly agree with the spirit of the charter in that respect. I also agree with Andy Wightman’s assessment that power in Scotland has become far too centralised.
The Scottish Conservatives have always said that the devolution of powers from London to Edinburgh should not stop at Holyrood. Power and decision making should continue to flow downwards to Scotland’s councils. They should not be centralised in Holyrood and Bute house, as has happened consistently during the past 14 years.
For example, hundreds of local planning decisions made by Scottish councils are overturned by the Scottish ministers each year, with ministers riding roughshod over community objections in many cases. In 2019, in four out of every 10 planning and development decisions that were appealed to Scottish National Party ministers, the original council decision was overturned. That power grab is clearly at odds with the spirit of the articles of the charter, which are, at their heart, designed to promote local democracy, independence and accountability.
It is in that context that the Scottish Conservatives have proposed a new law to prevent the Scottish ministers from overturning council decisions on planning applications, which would force Governments in Edinburgh to fully respect councils’ independence. Scotland’s councils, not Government ministers in Edinburgh, know best what the needs and priorities of their residents are, and what projects will bring benefits to their communities.
Across Scotland, our communities have a diverse range of needs. Many of the day-to-day issues that Orcadians face are completely different from those that Glaswegians face. It is therefore right that as many decisions as possible are taken by the people who are most likely to be directly affected by them.
Today marks one year on from our first national lockdown. Most important is that it presents a unique opportunity for us to mark today as a day of reflection about those who, tragically, lost their lives to the virus. It also gives us a chance to reflect on the unprecedented and profound effect the lockdown restrictions have had on our society and our economy.
As we aim to rebuild Scotland following the pandemic, which has turned our way of life upside down, I firmly believe that local government should play a key role in rebuilding our communities. Scotland’s councils will be at the forefront of addressing the many challenges and grasping the opportunities that will arise in communities throughout the country as we look to emerge stronger from the pandemic.
To be clear, to play that leading role, councils must be equipped with the appropriate financial resources and given the tools and freedom to deliver for Scotland’s communities. Although the Conservatives offer the bill our broad support, it is clear that there are other positive and practical measures that the Parliament can take to embolden Scotland’s councils further.
The Scottish Conservatives have already pledged that we would enshrine a new fair funding deal in law. Organisations such as COSLA have highlighted serious concerns about funding, and it is well known that Scotland’s councils have been cash strapped for years. The pandemic has compounded the problem. Our proposed financial framework for local government in Scotland would mean that councils would automatically receive a set percentage of the Scottish Government budget each year. That would give Scotland’s local authorities the much-sought guarantee that they would be not only financially independent but supported to the hilt to provide the best services for residents.
In the spirit of the charter articles, investing in local councils is at the heart of our vision to rebuild Scotland’s communities following the pandemic.
To reiterate, we broadly support the bill, as it will elevate the standing and importance of local government in Scotland. However, we believe that the Parliament can go further and can be much more ambitious in supporting local councils in Scotland with practical measures to deliver for residents across the country.
I congratulate Andy Wightman on his member’s bill reaching stage 3. It is a good bill to end the parliamentary session with. Andy Wightman has made a dry subject energetic and meaningful.
I, too, thank Aileen Campbell for all her service. I have seen her make several final speeches—perhaps today will be the final one. I wish her all the best.
The European Charter of Local Self-Government (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill will incorporate the European Charter of Local Self-Government into Scots law. The charter sets out 10 principles to protect the power of local authorities to be politically, administratively and financially independent, and it was ratified by the United Kingdom Government in November 1997.
The bill provides that the executive actions of the Scottish ministers acting within devolved competence and legislation that is within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament must be compatible with the charter. The bill creates the basis on which action can be taken in the courts to challenge any such action by the Scottish ministers or any such legislation that may not be compatible with the charter. It requires the courts to interpret legislation as compatible with the charter if it is possible to do so, and it provides the courts with remedies in cases of incompatibility. Therefore, there are some really key elements to the bill.
The bill is important because it places a duty on the Scottish Government to act compatibly with the charter and to promote local self-government.
If enacted, the bill should—and, I hope, will—protect councils from centralisation and unfair cuts, and from central control over their finances. The bill is long overdue, as can be seen from the damage that has been done to local government finance over the past decade or so.
It is essential that the role of local authorities as a layer of government is respected, and the Scottish Parliament must invest in that approach. We cannot have strong, sustainable and fair economic recovery without well-resourced local government. Local government has a central role in supporting and growing local economies through direct and indirect job creation, with local investment regenerating areas and reducing inequality.
We must trust local authorities with more powers, we must trust them to spread prosperity to their communities, and we must trust them reach local decisions. If we continue to centralise funding decisions at every turn, with continually increasing ring fencing of funding, we will make local authorities nothing more than central Government administrators. I do not think that that is where any of us want to be.
Local people will have decision-making closer to them and, whether there is agreement or disagreement, local people will feel that they have a stronger effect on change when local authorities make those decisions. Local authorities need consistent and adequate funding so that they can pay for the vital community services that they provide. The chipping away at local government funding and at councils’ ability to make strong decisions for their communities in recent times is having a huge impact on the ground. It is an attack on local democracy. As Andy Wightman says, that discussion is for another day, but we will need to come back to it.
Scottish Labour agrees that local government should have a fiscal framework so that it can do long-term financial planning, and the detail of that framework should be determined in discussion between the Scottish Government and local authorities.
In introducing the bill, Andy Wightman has aimed to create parity of esteem between the Scottish Government and local government, ensuring that decisions that impact on local people are made locally.
This is a really important bill. I hope that, as it is enacted in the next parliamentary session, it makes a huge difference to our local communities through local authorities making the right decisions at the right time for local people. We are happy to support the bill.
I congratulate Andy Wightman and thank him for all his work on the bill. It is a fitting tribute to the contribution that Andy Wightman has made to the current parliamentary session, and the Scottish Liberal Democrats strongly support the bill. Indeed, in 2015, my former colleague Tavish Scott sought amendments to the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill to place the charter on a statutory footing. He will be sad not to be here in person and contributing to the debate but I am sure that he will raise a glass of something in honour of this moment.
Tavish Scott recognised, as many of us recognise, that devolution was always supposed to be about more than the transfer of powers to Scotland—it was about the transfer of powers within Scotland. Two decades since the establishment of the Parliament, that remains unfinished business. Indeed, if anything, despite all the fanfare about the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 and the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018, we have gone backwards in some respects. Local authorities and local communities feel more powerless, and less able to influence the decisions that most directly affect them. Whether it is neutering them through prolonged council tax freezes or the centralisation of services, the effect is the same.
Democratically elected local authorities should be given the power to act in the best interests of the communities that they serve. That should be self-evident, regardless of which party or parties are in power at national level. Embedding the principles of the charter in Scots law seems a very good way of moving us in that direction.
We hope that doing that will help to ensure that decisions about how local services are shaped and delivered are decided at a more local level. It may not offer any guarantees, but it increases the likelihood that those decisions will be informed by people with the clearest understanding of local needs and circumstances, thus improving services or, at the very least, improving accountability for those services.
Scottish Liberal Democrats are committed to that—it is in our DNA. However, as Andy Wightman will, I am sure, testify, that is not a truth universally held. My hope is that by enshrining the charter in Scots law there will be more opportunity to push back at the relentless agenda of centralisation that we have seen from some quarters. Indeed, I can draw on recent examples.
The islands impact assessment of the proposed centralisation of air traffic services away from the islands to a remote tower in Inverness shows how important it is to have a legal ability to challenge. The assessment showed beyond doubt that the plans were not being progressed in the interests of island communities such as the ones that I represent. Despite SNP ministers defending the policy to the hilt, the assessment revealed only negative and significantly negative impacts for both Orkney and Shetland, from the direct loss of well-paying and highly skilled jobs to ripple effects on the local economy. The policy is being driven through with no real concern for the communities that will be most directly affected.
The compelling case for much-needed investment in the modernisation of air traffic services in each of our island groups has been used as an excuse to rip them out and relocate them. It is like dealing with a headache by prescribing decapitation. Today, Orkney Islands Council will debate a motion on the subject. Shetland and Western Isles Councils have already taken firm stands against what is being proposed. I hope that, with Andy Wightman’s bill passing, those island authorities will stand a better chance of having their voices heard on that and similar issues, because in a range of policy areas, from policing to health and economic development to transport, decisions are too often made that ignore the needs of rural and island communities.
The duty for Scottish ministers to act compatibly with the charter, and the requirement for courts to read legislation in a way that is compliant, will be another valuable tool. The principles of the charter received unanimous endorsement from the Council of Europe in 1998. I hope that the Scottish Parliament will be just as emphatic in supporting the bill at decision time today.
Once again, I thank and congratulate my friend Andy Wightman on his achievement in piloting this worthwhile legislation through Parliament.
Andy Wightman introduced the bill to Parliament less than a year ago and I, too, congratulate him on bringing it to this important and historic stage. However, in truth, it has been a very long journey to get to this stage, in a process that started well before the Parliament had even come into being. I feel as though I have travelled much of that journey alongside it.
As a former council officer, councillor, council leader, member of the European Union’s European Committee of the Regions and now a member of the bill committee, I have some insight into both the need for the bill and its passage into law. I utterly disagree with the previous speakers on what they believe is the retrenchment towards centralisation since 2007. Perhaps they are not as aware as I am of the history of local government before that period.
The European Charter of Local Self-Government came into being on 15 October 1985 and was signed by all 47 member states of the Council of Europe, with the United Kingdom ratifying it in 1998. Before any Brexity types in the Conservative seats start to get all anxious, that is the Council of Europe, one of the few European institutions of which the UK still retains membership. Job done, then, you might think. Why are we still discussing it some 35 years down the road? We are doing that because, as Andy Wightman said, ratification is not the same as incorporation.
It is all very well to say that we agree with a set of principles and then not do anything about it, but what has actual meaning is to say that we agree with the principles and will abide by them. To demonstrate that commitment, and to ensure that we will indeed follow the principles, we must make them part of our legal corpus. The Law Society of Scotland pointed out in its submission to the committee, and the explanatory notes to the bill make it clear, that in the legal systems of the UK
“domestic and international law are distinct and separate from one another. We agree ... that to give public international law the same legal authority as domestic law it must be incorporated into domestic law.”
That is what we are doing today. We are incorporating the charter into Scots law and doing something that I recall supporting at the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities more than 20 years ago as a council leader.
I think that Annie Wells, with her litany of attacks on the SNP, does not understand the history of local government. She talks about local authorities being cash strapped, but the idea that that is distinct from the austerity measures of the Government that she supports is laughable.
The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe has responsibility for ensuring the proper application of the European Charter of Local Self-Government, and it is worth reading from the congress’s most recent monitoring report on the UK’s compliance, which was published in 2014, although I suspect that it is more applicable than ever. The report
“expresses satisfaction that the UK is, in general, in compliance with the obligations taken under the Charter and that, compared to 1998, the situation has improved, notably through the devolution process”— a process that, in contradistinction to what Annie Wells was saying, the UK Government has not observed. We should look at its attacks on this institution.
On consultation procedures, the report welcomes the successful “partnership approach” that was adopted in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It notes that there are some “areas of concern”, particularly regarding
“The financial resources available to local authorities, their limited taxing powers and their dependence on government grants”.
It also underlines that
“there are ‘ambiguities’ that need to be addressed in areas such as the ‘lack of recognition’ of the constitutional right to local self-government in the law beyond the general powers granted by the Localism Act 2011.”
Not having incorporated the charter long ago, the UK is, as on so many other matters, very much an outlier. We have the opportunity today to steer Scotland, at least, back towards the mainstream, perhaps providing an example for the rest of the UK to follow. Most importantly, the bill will strengthen local government in Scotland, and I am pleased to support it.
I remind colleagues for the last time that I am a councillor of Aberdeen City.
Before re-entering active politics in 2016, I spent many years lecturing on the MBA programme at the Aberdeen business school. A regular guest lecturer was the chief executive of Aberdeen City Council. After one talk, a Chinese student declared that she was confused. Why, she asked, did Chinese local government, under the centralised command economy of communist China, have more freedoms and discretion than local authorities in Scotland and in so-called liberal western democracies? It was a good question.
The local government charter is wide ranging, containing some 11 articles. The financial article, article 9, is the one that I find most interesting. It includes the right for local government to be fully consulted and to decide on local taxation and its rate—and to keep it—the right to a fair distribution of resources, the right not to have financial support ring fenced and the right to use its funds how it wishes.
If we consider that, since 2013-14, local government has had a budget cut of 2.4 per cent against a Government real-terms increase of 3.1 per cent, and that, according to COSLA, there are more than 30 ring-fenced projects in existence, we can see that the bill that we are passing today requires a step change in the relationship between the Scottish Government and local authorities. In short, the message to this SNP centralising Government is, “Get your central controlling tank off our local authority lawn.”
The bill, which incorporates the European Charter of Local Self-Government, is not before its time, and I will certainly be supporting it tonight.
Since this is my last contribution in the chamber, I will record a few thanks. First, I thank my team: David Hill in Edinburgh, Michele Binnie and Rami Jerrow in Aberdeen and the various other people who have assisted me during my period as an MSP. I also thank my wife Kate and my family, who have never failed to give their support. I particularly thank them for accommodating the increasing onset and influence of Parkinson’s, which, although well medicated, has destroyed my ability to write and, over recent months, has limited my contributions. To that end, I thank the parliamentary authorities for allowing me additional resources to assist me with the problem. Without exception, the parliamentary support staff and administration, the clerks and information technology staff have been commendable. I thank you all.
I first campaigned on behalf of my mother for chairmanship of Bishop’s Stortford Council as long ago as 1960. I was a Grampian regional councillor long before this Assembly was conceived. In 2017, after 20 years as a justice of the peace, I became a councillor again in Aberdeen. In the same year, I arrived—unexpectedly at my age—as an MSP. I was not the oldest, as Gil Paterson pipped me for that honour, although I did become a committee convener, albeit for only two minutes.
I have retained my local government connections throughout—indeed, on leaving this place, I will continue to serve as a councillor in Aberdeen. It is for others to judge my contribution over the past few years, but I will always remember falling out with the First Minister over Aberdeen art gallery, and even ending up as an advocate for croquet during the pandemic—a wry joke, but with a serious point about the value of sport for physical and mental health. It has been an honour and a privilege to serve North East Scotland, even if I never understood a word from some of my Doric-speaking constituents.
My long career in politics has given me great expectations for this Parliament. I believe that its creators all wanted it to be creative, inclusive, collaborative, transparent, proportional and family friendly, and in some ways it has achieved that. The Public Petitions Committee, on which I sit, has opened up an amazing range of issues, and if they have not been resolved, they have certainly been explored. The friendliness of the building, and the respectful nature of the staff and MSPs of all parties, provide continual encouragement. I have attended debates in which members have demonstrated extensive knowledge, understanding and compassion.
However, the Parliament’s ambition to be proportional and family friendly deprives it of its organic and creative characteristics. Members look to their party bosses for their continued inclusion, and not to the electorate. The parliamentary arithmetic drives the number and length of questions, the number of speakers and the number of minutes for each speech, regardless of content. On many occasions, time has driven out knowledgeable and meaningful contributions, allowing poorly constructed bills on to the statute book. It is a case of “Never mind the quality—feel the width.” At least we all get home for tea at 6. There is no real sign of collaboration, and in the end sizeable minorities have been abandoned, to the benefit of very small vested interests.
In ending, I will tell members a short salutary tale. Some time ago, before the earth was round, or at least before Facebook and Twitter were invented, there was a radio programme for younger listeners called “4D Special”. It had a competition to compose a mini saga of not more than 50 words. This was the winning entry.
Three pigs in a bed. The big pig said, “Roll over,” the next pig said, “Roll over,” and the little pig on the end said, “Don’t roll over, I will fall out of bed and die.” They voted. So the big pig rolled over, the next pig rolled over, the little pig on the end rolled over and fell out of bed, and died! Democracy!
I wished Tom Mason all the best, and I do the same for the cabinet secretary. Aileen Campbell and I go back to the good old days of the SNP Glasgow regional association; recent events have been nothing in comparison with what we had to put up with in those days, and that was only among a few of us. She has been a great friend and colleague for a long time, and she has been an absolute pleasure to work as cabinet secretary while I have been convener of the Local Government and Communities Committee.
I am delighted to speak on the bill today. As committee convener, I pledged our support at stage 1, and I am pleased to see that the cabinet secretary and the member who introduced the bill, Andy Wightman, have worked so collaboratively to iron out most of the—mainly technical—amendments that were required.
At first, the Scottish Government adopted a neutral stance on the bill to allow the opportunity for officials to carry out due diligence and an analysis of its potential implications. As convener, I welcomed the officials’ on-going work and support through the stages of the legislative process.
There was, and probably still is, some slight concern that the charter might be used to bring frivolous or politically motivated court cases against the Government of the day; we do not have to go too far back in time to see how that could possibly happen. However, we were convinced by the witnesses that that has not been the case in other countries that have the charter in place and have safeguards that would make that difficult.
The committee supported the bill for a number of reasons, including the fact that it brings Scotland in line with European jurisdictions, and the fact that we back the principle of increased devolution of decision making to local government. I agree with my colleague Keith Brown that that has been the direction of travel since 2007, when we came into power.
We agree, however, that there is room for levelling up the relationship between Holyrood and the local government sector. As we have seen through the pandemic, increased co-operation between national Government and local government has better supported people in our communities, and we want to ensure that that continues. We often take it for granted, but local authorities deliver such a wide range of services that are part of our daily lives.
The aim of the bill is to strengthen local democracy by increasing the autonomy of local authorities and enshrining support for local government into law. I know that the Scottish Government is fully committed to subsidiarity and to empowering local authorities and communities, which has been clear through policies such as the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 and participatory budgeting. Greater community engagement and participation leads to the delivery of better and more responsive services and better outcomes for communities. The bill will help to increase the involvement of local people in shaping the communities in which they live, which can only be a positive thing.
I pay tribute to Andy Wightman, committee members and their excellent clerks, and the Scottish Government for reaching this stage. Once passed, the legislation will bring Scotland into line with some of our European partners and, more importantly, help create the conditions for further, more ambitious changes to how Scotland is governed.
First, I acknowledge and congratulate Andy Wightman on introducing this member’s bill and getting it to this stage. I hope that it will be passed today. I also acknowledge the role of the cabinet secretary and the Government in working with Mr Wightman. I know that the Government has worked with the members on the two members’ bills that we are considering today to ensure that we get the legislation through, which is good.
The bill is important, because it places a duty on the Scottish Government to act compatibly with the charter and to promote local self-government. If enacted, it should protect councils from centralisation and unfair cuts or central control over their finances. I listened to Keith Brown earlier, and I think that he needs to come out of denial. The fact is that we have seen a centralisation under different political parties since the establishment of the Parliament, which is not right. We need to consider how to get power further down, rather than centralising it. Mr Brown should wake up to the fact that every party that has had power here has tended to centralise local government.
Scottish Labour fully supports the bill. Power has been centralised in Edinburgh for far too long and the incorporation of the charter will lead to a reinvigoration of the role of local government in Scottish public life. I also noticed the comments from Annie Wells, and the example that she gave about the centralisation of planning was a poor one. With the Planning (Scotland) Bill, the Tories had the opportunity to give more power to the people and they voted against it, so there is no point in their coming here today and pretending that they are suddenly interested in giving communities planning powers or a greater say in planning.
There has been a creeping dilution of the power of local authorities over the past half century, which means that decisions on services that affect people’s daily lives—on things such as housing, planning, economic development, education, caring for people, water and sewage, and environmental protection—are taken further and further away from locally elected people. Councils have become administrators of central Government policy rather than drivers of local initiatives. I was lucky enough and proud to be elected as a local councillor, and I know from my years of experience in local government that that is the area in which you can make such a big difference, when you have the resources and engage with local communities. That is true across Scotland’s 32 local authorities—you can find good and best practice in every one.
If we want to tackle poverty and some of the social ills in our community, we will not do so simply by bringing in policy here; we will do so by empowering local authorities to do their job and by encouraging local officials in councils to be innovative, consider the issues on the ground and come up with local solutions to local problems. If we are serious about tackling the big issues in communities across Scotland, we cannot do it from this Parliament alone, but we can do so by empowering local government. Labour will support the bill, which is a welcome step on the way to empowering local authorities.
Local democracy is fundamentally important to our society. Councillors the length and breadth of Scotland are at the coal face of daily life. They understand the challenges that their constituents face and the aspirations of their communities, and they are best placed to identify solutions and opportunities. We need to trust our local communities and local people to make decisions on the policies that most directly affect them. As I have said before, that is why I welcome the bill and the incorporation of the European Charter of Local Self-Government into Scots law. I pay tribute to Andy Wightman for introducing the bill.
We all know that Scotland’s local communities are not trusted to make decisions themselves. Sometimes, it is difficult to say that our councils are truly local government. A better description might be that they are an extension, or an arm’s-length body, of the Scottish Government. That is certainly how they have been treated. In recent years, the growing number of diktats and bits of guidance from Holyrood has shown that to be the case, and councils have had less and less control over their budgets.
Formal and informal ring fencing has reduced the discretionary spend that councils have and therefore reduced the scope for local decision making. For that reason, the axe has had to fall even harder on many essential services in local communities. It cannot be said that the current Scottish Government is compliant with the principles of the charter. Therefore, we welcome the Government’s support of the bill.
As we said in the stage 1 debate, the purpose of the bill is to ensure that the Scottish Government changes its approach to councils. I ask the Government when the policy diktats will stop and when the ring fencing of budgets will stop. I think that we all know the answer to those questions: they will not.
Although I welcome the ambition of the bill, I still have reservations about how it will work in practice. I still doubt that councils will have the risk appetite or the funds to challenge the Scottish Government in court and to engage in the process to ensure that their local democracy rights are protected. It is simply a case of waiting to see how it will work in practice.
That said, I welcome some of the stage 2 amendments that improved the bill. In particular, I welcome the amendment to ensure that the Scottish ministers have a duty to consult local authority representatives. I also welcome the additional checks and balances in relation to action that is taken by the Scottish ministers. It is vital that the Parliament has proper oversight of any regulations that are made by the Scottish ministers under section 6 of the bill.
Before I conclude, I will highlight some points that were made in the debate. Andy Wightman talked about strengthening the standing of local authorities, and how COSLA has asked for the adoption of the charter in the past. The bill will involve modest changes that will make a difference across the country.
The cabinet secretary spoke about the positive changes of the bill, and the positive approach that has got us to stage 3. Annie Wells talked about the role of local government, and what it can do with its powers. As she identified, there is no doubt that things have been centralised.
We in the Scottish Conservatives welcome the bill to enshrine the European Charter of Local Self-Government in Scots law, which will bring Scotland in line with other European countries. Devolution should not stop at Edinburgh but, over the current Government’s term in office, powers have been sucked into the centre, and local government in Scotland has been fundamentally undermined, both politically and financially. The bill is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, but we need to change the powers of local councils in the future.
This is not my final speech in Parliament, but I really appreciate the messages that I have had from members during the course of the debate. I have a members’ business debate later and portfolio question time tomorrow, so it is a long goodbye from me in my final week in Parliament. However, I appreciate members’ remarks.
The Scottish Parliament is taking an important step today to reinforce the autonomy of Scottish councils and, by doing so, to strengthen the status and standing of local government. I thank members for their excellent contributions to the debate and the passion that they have shown for local government and local democracy. It is clear that every member in the chamber values the unique and important role that our councils play in our lives.
The consistent message throughout each stage of the bill from key stakeholders has been that passing it will strengthen local democracy by ensuring parity of esteem between the spheres of government. That is why I said in my opening speech that we must not view the bill as the end or as a blunt instrument, but as a means to strengthen the relationship between those spheres, and as an opportunity to continue along the path towards making Scotland a fairer country.
Scotland has never needed its spheres of government to work together more than it needs it now. During the passage of the bill, we have had hybrid and virtual meetings, and members have contributed fully to debates via BlueJeans. That is a reminder, if one was needed, of how much life in Parliament, and in general, has changed. An even more stark reminder of what the country has been through is that today marks one year since lockdown began; we have collectively paid our respects to those who have lost their lives to this nasty virus. A milestone such as that gives us cause to reflect on what has happened, what worked and what comes next.
I thank our local authorities for all that they have done over the past year, because despite the obvious trauma and suffering that Covid has brought to so many people during the pandemic, there have been countless acts of kindness, solidarity and compassion as communities and the third sector, supported by our local government partners, have stepped up to look after everyone.
Although there has been a flourishing of good practice and community endeavour, Covid has brought into sharp relief the persistent inequalities that exist in Scotland, despite our best efforts. As the bill prompts us to think about how we want governance to move forward, Covid prompts us to think about the type of country that, along with our local government partners, we want to create.
We want to ensure that decisions are taken as close as possible to the people whom they will affect the most. We want a vibrant and inclusive democracy that supports local self-determination. Andy Wightman’s member’s bill is welcome; we hope that it will create the conditions for more ambitious changes to Scotland and how it is governed. Through the bill, the work of the social renewal advisory board and the desire and momentum to empower our communities, we will trust and support communities to make the changes that we all want in order to ensure that, in the recovery, things do not revert back to what was normal, because that normality failed too many people for too long.
On governance, how the country is structured and how decisions are made reminds me why I want independence for Scotland. I have never believed that Scotland is better than other countries, but I believe that it is as good as any other country and that we can make a success of independence. However, that should never be about bringing powers from Westminster to the Scottish Parliament. Instead, there should be full consideration of further devolution of powers to our councils and communities.
I am pleased to support the bill in its passage through Parliament. We want to ensure that decisions are taken locally. We want to ensure that the Parliament is responsive to the clear desire of our communities and councils to work in partnership to create the better country that we all know can be created. We want also to ensure that we create fairness in that process.
The bill prompts us to consider and think through how we work together with our local authority partners to ensure that Scotland is a success. As we seek to recover from the pandemic, we have never before needed so much to work in closer partnership with our councils.
Many people have played a part in getting us to this point. In particular, I acknowledge the role of COSLA, MSPs from across the Parliament and, of course, Andy Wightman himself, who has led us here. He and his team should be rightly proud of their achievement; I thank them for their collaborative working. I hope that the bill serves as a platform from which we can build a better and fairer Scotland.
I thank all members who have spoken in the debate. I echo the cabinet secretary’s thanks to COSLA, which, as I said in my opening remarks, has been championing the bill for a long time. The COSLA team and staff and its president, Alison Evison, have been extremely supportive throughout the process.
I also thank my staff—Gillian, Ciaran and Charlotte—for keeping everything on the road. Given everything that is going on around us right now, it is quite refreshing to be in Parliament, engaged in a serious debate about a bill that seeks to deliver for the people of Scotland. As I said in my opening remarks, I do not expect the bill to set the heather alight; however, it is like much of what we do here—we are the architects of power relations, whether in respect of freedom of information, criminal justice reform or the powers of local government. That is because democratic institutions need constant attention and the rights and freedoms of the citizens need to be protected. Power must be distributed equitably and be exercised accountably.
In one of my favourite quotes, Tony Benn would famously ask five questions of people who were in positions of economic, social and political power:
“What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you use it? To whom are you accountable?”
He said that anyone who cannot answer the last question does not, arguably, live in a democratic system. The question was:
“How do we get rid of you?”
That is what we are doing today, albeit in a very modest way. We are strengthening our democracy; in particular, we are strengthening the institution of our system of government that lies closest to the people—albeit that it is not close enough—so that it might serve them better and more effectively and be more responsive to the wishes of local communities, rather than the political imperatives in Edinburgh.
I thank members. Annie Wells said that local councils are an important and essential part of government. She highlighted, correctly, the role that they have played in responding to the pandemic.
Pauline McNeill mentioned financial resources, which are encompassed by article 9 of the charter. Both the Faculty of Advocates and Professor Chris Himsworth had interesting things to say about that. It might well be a key area of discussion and debate in the years ahead.
Liam McArthur spoke from Orkney. That is a local authority area with a population of 22,000; which demonstrates that we can do local government locally. I welcome Keith Brown’s long-standing commitment to local government and his involvement in European co-operation.
Tom Mason made an interesting comparison with communist China. I am not sure whether he was talking about the provinces, the autonomous regions, the municipalities, the special administrative regions, the prefectures, the counties, the townships or the villages, but I will no doubt find out. I wish Tom well.
James Dornan spoke of the Local Government and Communities Committee’s work. I thank it again; in particular, for its bespoke consultation with the Faculty of Advocates, which added valuable legal perspectives to the bill.
The bill delivers on a long-standing aspiration, as I said in my opening remarks. I am proud to have been the member in charge of it, and I thank everyone for their support and encouragement. This year the Council of Europe will, I understand, be undertaking a monitoring mission to the United Kingdom, as it has done on occasions in the past, to look at compliance with the charter. I very much look forward to engaging with that mission, if possible, and I look forward to the conclusions that it reaches—including, I hope, a welcome to the incorporation of the charter.
I conclude my remarks by wishing the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government well, as she concludes her term of office as a minister and as an MSP. Throughout this session of Parliament, she has displayed common sense, good humour and a straightforward and human approach to politics. She has also, which is important, shown kindness and empathy to all who have dealt with her. Would that that were the case with everyone here. However, there will be more about that on another day.
Depending, of course, on the outcome of my own political project, I might or might not be back after 6 May. If I am, there will be another members’ bill that I will want to deliver.