HC Deb 04 July 2000 vol 353 cc217-33 '( ).—(1) A local authority may make executive arrangements for the discharge of certain of its functions. (2) Nothing in this Part shall have effect in respect of a local authority not making executive arrangements.'.—[Mr. Waterson.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Waterson

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: New clause 7—Application for locally developed arrangements'.—(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision for a local authority to apply to propose to the Secretary of State arrangements not provided for by or under sections 10(2) to (5). (2) In submitting a proposal to the Secretary of State under regulations issued under subsection (1) an authority must:

  1. (a) demonstrate that the proposals have the support of the local government electors for, and other interested parties in, the authority's area,
  2. (b) ensure that the arrangements include provision for the appointment by the authority of one or more overview and scrutiny committees,
  3. (c) explain why the authority considers that the proposed arrangements would be more suitable to local circumstances than a local authority executive as specified in sections 10(2) to (5) and
  4. (d) explain why the authority considers that the proposed arrangements would be likely to ensure that decisions of the authority are taken in an efficient, transparent and accountable way.
(3) In issuing a regulation under subsection (1) the Secretary of State may, in particular, include:
  1. (a) details as to the number or class of authorities to which those regulations apply,
  2. (b) the criteria to which the Secretary of State must have regard in considering any proposals submitted under those regulations. In particular these criteria may include:
    1. (i) the population of the authority,
    2. (ii) the number of members of the authority,
    3. (iii) the nature of the communities in the authorities area, and
    4. (iv) the history of the authority's political control.'.
Amendment No. 1, in clause 9, page 5, line 32, after "authority", insert— 'which determines to adopt executive arrangements'. Amendment No. 2, in clause 10, page 5, line 40, leave out "The" and insert "An".

Amendment No. 3, in page 5, line 40, leave out "must" and insert "may".

Amendment No. 57, in page 6, line 43 leave out clause 11.

Amendment No. 58, in clause 13, page 9, line 44, after "executive", insert— '( ) by a committee of the authority.'. Amendment No. 59, in clause 14, page 10, line 29, after "executive", insert— '( ) a committee of the authority.'. Amendment No. 60, in clause 15, page 11, line 31, after "executive", insert— '( ) by a committee of the authority.'. Amendment No. 214, in page 17, line 34, leave out clause 23.

Amendment No. 21, in clause 28, page 20, line 38, leave out subsection (3).

Mr. Waterson

We now come to what Lord Whitty, the Minister in the Lords, called the central part of the Bill: the Government's intention to impose structures on local government. The avowed intention behind the new clause and amendments Nos. 1 to 3 is to return the Bill to the form that it took on this issue when it last left the Lords and to reflect strong feelings across local government throughout the country.

Amendments Nos. 57 to 60 would deal essentially with what we regard as the Government's bogus fourth option, which they are peddling to local government, although I gather that they had a signal lack of success at the Local Government Association conference last week. There are three central flaws in their so-called fourth option: it still requires the production of a council executive, it seems to apply to whole categories of councils rather than to individual ones—that flexibility is absent—and, inevitably, the say-so of the Secretary of State is required. Amendment No. 214 would remove clause 23—I shall return to that—and amendment No. 21 would remove clause 28(3).

On structures, despite having relatively pleasant debates in Committee—I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is not in the Chamber—we were subject to an awful lot of sloganising by Ministers. One was the famous slogan of the Minister for Local Government and the Regions: no change is not an option. The problem is that the Government purported to give local government three options for structures—although they now claim to have added a fourth—but, depending on which survey we accept, perhaps 1 or 2 per cent. of councils are remotely interested in having a directly elected mayor. Perhaps that figure will have decreased following the experience of the London mayoral elections.

I have yet to meet any council that seems at all interested in the council manager model, but one may exist. The Minister may wish to quote it or them when she responds. However, the Minister's attitude reminds me of Henry Ford's attitude to car buyers—they could have any colour that they liked as long as it was black. For the vast majority of local authorities, the Government intend to impose the executive or cabinet model or structure.

A question is bound to be asked, and it has been by Conservative Members and an increasing number of right hon. and hon. Members on the Government Benches. If the Government's idea is such a good one and is so popular, why not ask people to choose? Give them a set of options. If an option really means an option, they can decide, or they can operate their status quo if that works for them. They can operate an updated version of that status quo or other models that they may be able to construct.

I shall refer to the latest briefing on the Bill by the Local Government Association. It states in its covering letter that its main remaining concern about the Bill is the lack of flexibility in the Government's approach. It states: Whilst it is understandable that the government would not want to make regulations for 410 models it is the sheer diversity of local government that has led to the call for greater flexibility. The Government has stated their commitment to the operation of executives under any form of new arrangement. This amendment confirms that commitment. It does not provide for arrangements that do not include such an executive. The key passage reads: The Association remains of the belief that for some authorities, particularly smaller ones or those of a more rural nature, a separate executive is not necessarily the most appropriate way of achieving efficiency, accountability and transparency in decision taking. The LGA would support an amendment that provided for some authorities to apply to the Secretary of State to be able to introduce other models, which may not include a separate executive. If the Government's idea was such a good one, we might expect that Labour-controlled authorities would embrace it with enthusiasm. It is true that some have done so, but we fear that they have adopted that approach because they are attracted by the possibility of secrecy and carrying out decision making behind closed doors.

The London borough of Camden, for example, might well have embraced these wonderful modernising ideas. However, when it came to it, Camden, which is an overwhelmingly Labour-controlled council, voted 43 to zero against the Government's proposals. It is—[Interruption.] The Minister always dissolves into paroxysms of laughter whenever I read out these figures. It is the way that I tell them. Surely it is vaguely depressing for her that Camden is so utterly unenthused by her proposals. Perhaps she finds the situation amusing because she fully intends to drive the Bill through the House and force Camden, 43 to zero or not, to put into effect the cabinet system. It is interesting that the then leader of Camden, Councillor Arthur, who I believe is now the ex-leader, was one of three abstentions.

Another good example is that of Brighton and Hove. We had quite a detailed discussion about it in Committee. It was one of the first councils to adopt the cabinet system. The now Lord Bassam, the then leader of the council, was enthusiastic about making Brighton and Hove one of the pioneer authorities in implementing a new Labour system. Only this May, despite the fact that Labour has a 12-seat overall majority, councillors voted by 34 to 31 against changes to the current set up. They ordered a plan to be drawn up for a three or four-party committee system.

Since then, things have moved on somewhat in that the cabinet system is still being operated on an interim basis. It seems that some of the Labour rebel members were got at. I believe that an all-party task group is considering the future structure of Brighton and Hove council.

6.45 pm

Councillor Geoffrey Theobald, the leader of the Conservatives, said: The Council was one of the first to go over to the cabinet system because the then leader, Lord Bassam, now a Junior Home Office Minister, wanted to pleased his close friends— the Prime Minister and the Minister for Local Government and the Regions.

It is strange that two councils that might be expected to be at the cutting edge in modernising local government would vote against the Government's proposals. [Interruption.] The Minister is keeping up her usual running commentary on these matters. I am sure that she will have the chance to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Labour local government has not exactly embraced the Government's proposals with great enthusiasm. I know that the right hon. Lady will groan, if only inwardly, at my reference to the Labour campaign for open local government. She and her right hon. and hon. Friends have succeeded in creating a sort of resistance movement within Labour local government. It is made up of about 1,000 supporters, of whom about 500 are councillors in about 90 local authorities. I understand that they include leaders, chief whips and other leading councillors.

We heard at great length about the views of the Labour campaign for open local government in Committee, and I do not intend to repeat them now. Its views are not limited to those councillors who are members of it. These views have spilled over and are now shared by a number of Labour Back Benchers.

When these issues were put to Ministers in Committee, their response was to rubbish the Camden operation. It was said that Camden's responses were in favour of white, well-heeled people from social classes 1 and 2 and that they were "grossly over-represented." However, Camden went to far greater lengths than any other council of which I am aware to consult local residents on whether they wanted the changes proposed by the Government. It sent out many questionnaires and held 30 public meetings throughout the borough. It had focus groups representing the disabled and ethnic minorities. It made many targeted attempts to get a real view of what local people thought.

Camden has shown the way. It has demonstrated that, with the right council taking the right approach, voters—residents—will take an interest in the structures of, and changes to, local government. It has shown also that in the real world there is no enthusiasm for the Government's proposals.

I was at the Local Government Association conference in Bournemouth last week, and heard of the less-than-warm reception that the Minister received from local government in its massed ranks when she announced the Government's proposals. Local government gave her the Women's Institute treatment. I challenge her, as I did in Committee, to tell the House who wants the changes. Who is driving them? Apart from a small coterie of Ministers and others in the new local government network and a few new Labour think tanks, who wants them? Going round the country as I do, talking to councillors of all political persuasions in all parts of the country, I have yet to find any real enthusiasm, except for one or two—

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley)

My hon. Friend understates the case. Most of the local authority members to whom I have spoken are actively opposed to the proposal. They opposed it because they do not like corruption, they want democracy and openness, and they see it as an opportunity for people who want to bring in corruption, to wipe out democracy, to stop the press seeing, and to bring in secrecy and control. Local government has had a small smattering of corruption, in percentage terms. The proposed system will allow more corruption and less detection.

Mr. Waterson

My hon. Friend speaks from great experience.

I shall summarise our main objections. The first is that no one seems to want the wonderful new structures, so why do Ministers not leave the matter up to local councillors? There is an element of compulsion. That is the thrust of our amendments. Secondly, why does the Minister insist on damning the entire committee system, which has served many councils well over a number of years? Why does she persist in speaking about an old-fashioned committee system, rather than the streamlined committee system that many councils operate?

Thirdly, has the Minister made any attempt to estimate the total cost of the changes across local government? We know, for example, that Durham city council has budgeted £300,000 towards the cost of establishing a cabinet structure. Not a penny of that will make life any better or easier for the residents and council taxpayers.

Fourthly, and most of all, we do not want a two-tier system for local councillors. All councillors should have equal worth. The concept of back-bench councillors should be anathema in local government. We believe that small groups of people making all the decisions is bad for local government, and that a massive split between executive and scrutiny is bad news for those who do not happen to be on the executive.

For all those reasons, it is essential that the House, or failing that, the other place, writes into the Bill the clear right of councillors to choose another option if that is what they wish—not the bogus fourth option that the Minister has been peddling unsuccessfully, but a real, red-blooded fourth option.

I shall touch briefly on amendment No. 214, which would delete clause 23. We do not know why the Government are so set against political balance applying to cabinets. It works very well in places such as Conservative-run Bedfordshire. However, it has been grabbed with alacrity by some old Labour councillors, and at least 60 per cent. of existing cabinets are one-party cabinets, many of which meet in secret.

Finally, amendment No. 21 would delete clause 28(3). We call this the "abandon all hope, you who enter" provision, because, once a council has moved to an executive system, there is no way of going back to the previous system. That is harmful and unnecessary. It chimes with the general air of compulsion that surrounds the Government's attitude to local government structures.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)

I shall speak briefly about the argument for opening up local government to the people and the press. We have a cabinet system in my constituency which I am told is working well, although some back-bench councillors do not have the power that they would like. I suppose that that will come with time, as the scrutiny committees get down to their work.

The cabinet minutes go out to all the councillors and the press, and anyone can attend cabinet meetings—the press, the public and local councillors who are not members of the cabinet. This week, copies of the agenda went out, and one of the items on the agenda was a matter on which the council must decide what it will do next year. I understand there are to be substantial cuts next year in Blyth Valley, due to shortage of money. Some of the suggested cuts for the cabinet to discuss involved leisure centres and other amenities.

The paper was supposed to be private and confidential and councillors were asked to keep it to themselves, because it had not yet been discussed with the work force. Unfortunately, as it went out to all the councillors, the local press—the Newcastle edition of The Journal—got a copy, and printed it this morning. The trade unions and the work force were at the door of the council, demanding to know what was going to happen. Of course, the matter has not yet been discussed. That is the role of the cabinet—to discuss such matters, then go to the work force and tell them.

That example shows that openness goes two ways. Openness is right and I believe in it. My council has done right by being open, but the press showed disregard for an item in a cabinet paper that should have remained confidential until it had been discussed. I do not know what we can do about the matter but, after today's furore, I believe that it should be raised on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Don Foster

During the 18 years of Conservative Governments, both as a local councillor and then with the opportunity provided to me as a Member of the House, I railed strongly against the centralising tendency of those Governments. I suspect that many Members of Parliament and many members of the public looked forward to a new dawn for local government, following the election in 1997. Unfortunately, in respect of centralisation, the sun has yet to rise.

From various measures, it is clear that the Government continue to be a centralising Government. That is best demonstrated by their insistence on imposing on all local councils a requirement to change their decision-making arrangements to one of three models selected by the Government.

In response to that challenge from the Government, different proposals have been made from the those on the Conservative Benches and our Benches. I shall speak predominantly to new clause 7, which is an entirely different response from that offered by those on the Conservative Front Bench, and I hope, therefore, that it will be possible to have a separate vote on new clause 7.

It was a great privilege to represent my party in the House on education and employment matters for quite some time. I vividly recall the challenge made by the current Secretary of State to all of us to deal with standards, not structures, in education. That phrase applies equally to local government. We are all concerned about the lack of public interest in local government, and we all want to find ways of involving the public more. The solution lies not in structural changes, but in giving local councils greater opportunity to do the things that are most likely to benefit local communities, and to have a voting system that would enable people to feel that when they voted, they could truly make a difference.

That is not the Government's approach. They have decided that three options are to be foisted on local councils. I am the first to acknowledge that the Government have been prepared to make some concessions, following our deliberations in Committee. There is now greater flexibility in those three options, but all three of them and any of the flexibility that is offered still require the fundamental model of a single executive.

It is vital that a genuine alternative approach also be offered to local councils. However, I do not take the Conservative Front-Bench view that the fourth option should be merely the status quo—indeed, without even any possible checks with the local community as to whether it supports the continuation of the status quo. I tabled new clause 7 because I believe it is important that whatever option a local council brings forward in the current climate should be tested for local public support.

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The new clause would provide the opportunity for an individual council to make its own proposals, different from the three that the Government insist on, but with certain caveats. First, it must ensure that the proposed arrangements would make the council's decisions efficient, open and accountable. Secondly, the new clause would require that as part of the package there should be effective means of scrutinising council decisions. Thirdly, it would require that the proposal be demonstrated to have wide-scale popular support.

In the form of those three provisions, and also the provision that the proposal be presented to the Secretary of State for approval, the Government are given a genuinely acceptable fourth option meeting all their requirements—the inclusion of scrutiny, efficiency, effectiveness, openness and accountability, the Secretary of State's having the last word, and a requirement that the public demonstrate their support for the model. We have even gone further and made it a requirement that the council making such a proposition shall have to demonstrate why its proposals will be better than those made by the Government.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire)

To reinforce what my hon. Friend says, in the part of Wales that I come from, the county of Powys, which has an excellent formula for the administration of local government, is 120 miles long. The cabinet system is not appropriate there. In terms of distance, it is the equivalent of Bristol controlling what goes on in London. We must have flexibility of the kind to which my hon. Friend refers.

Mr. Foster

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He strengthens my argument by making the simple point that no two councils are the same. There are about 450 councils in the land. What will best suit one council may not best suit another. Even the requirement that there be an executive or cabinet may not suit all councils. Therefore, we suggest a way of moving forward that meets many of the Government's concerns. The new clause does not merely say that the status quo can continue willy-nilly. Even if a council like my hon. Friend's wishes to continue the status quo, as it may well do, it will be required to demonstrate that it has popular support.

Of course, Conservative Front Benchers are perfectly entitled to propose the status quo as their way forward, but it was rather rich of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) to pray in aid the briefing document from the Local Government Association and to read out various sections, without giving a full reading. To put the record straight, I should also read out what the LGA says in its document sent to all of us. It said: The Association supports the removal of clause 9, which would have allowed authorities to "opt out" of Part II of the Bill without any consultation with local communities and their stakeholders. It is wrong for the hon. Gentleman to pray in aid the LGA for his new clause, when it is absolutely clear that the LGA is not supporting it. Having read all the LGA document very carefully, I suspect that I could with integrity pray it in aid to support new clause 7.

Mr. Waterson

Before the hon. Gentleman gets too carried away with that line of argument, I would point out that I was not necessarily suggesting LGA support for the precise wording of our new clause; but it is clear that the Government have still failed to persuade the LGA or any significant local government body that their so-called fourth option is really anything of the sort.

Mr. Foster

I entirely agree. The hon. Gentleman and I are at one in believing that the Government are wrong to impose on all councils three options that, in the main, have very similar features anyway. Both he and I believe that local authorities should be given much greater freedom to decide how they are to operate. Nevertheless, we have a different approach to how that should be achieved.

I end by suggesting to the Minister that there are many rumours, as there always are, about the Government's proposals. There is undoubtedly one category or group of councils that the Government's proposals fit least easily—the shire district councils, those particularly small councils with relatively limited powers. The rumour is that the Government may at least allow them to opt out from having the three models imposed on them. I should welcome hearing from the Government whether the rumour is true. If it is not, it should be.

Mr. Llew Smith

I shall speak briefly in support of new clause 7. In doing so, I know that I have the support of not only my constituency Labour party but the Labour council. Unlike Camden, it had no abstainers, I am pleased to say. There was total opposition to the cabinet system and the mayoral system from the Labour group in Blaenau Gwent.

However, I disagree with the Conservative Front-Bench spokesperson's explanation of why so many local authorities have already brought the cabinet system into being. He said that it was because they welcomed secrecy. I do not think that that is so. Most have introduced it not because they support it, but because they see a degree of inevitability about the whole process.

When the Government came to power, they told us that they were committed to devolving power. We all welcomed that. The Government will argue that acts of devolution were the setting up of the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. Some of us in the House did not think that that had anything to do with devolution, but a great deal to do with nationalism. However, if we take the Government at their word, and accept that the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament were created as acts of devolution, it is sad that they have not applied the same logic to local government.

With both the mayoral system and the cabinet system, the Government are not devolving power but centralising it in the hands of the mayor or the cabinet. My local authority, my constituency party and I find that politically unacceptable. We also find it sad, because we regard local government as probably the most democratic arm of government and, indeed, of the United Kingdom state.

Putting power in the hands of the mayor has nothing to do with devolving power; it is centralising power in the hands of one person. Unless his or her agreement can be obtained, the things that one wants for one's community will not happen, because that one person will not accept them. If in place of the mayoral system we have the cabinet system, instead of one person taking the decisions 10 people will take them. Once again, that is unacceptable, because those who are not in the cabinet are not part of the decision-making process and cannot reflect the aspirations of the community that they represent. They cannot have a say in making policy for that community.

The reason for going on a council is to involve oneself not only in the debates but in the votes, in a way that will affect one's little community in a positive way.

Mr. Simon Thomas

I understood the hon. Gentleman to say, looking at local government in Wales, that the cabinet system in local government was unacceptable per se. Will he confirm that that is what he was saying?

Mr. Smith

I am saying that I, my constituency party and the Labour group on the council unanimously oppose the cabinet system and the mayoral system because we are committed to devolution. We believe that the proposed system has nothing to do with devolution, but that it has a lot to do with centralisation, to which we are opposed.

I know that some will pray in aid scrutiny committees. We welcome those bodies, but we know that their creation has nothing to do with devolving power. Those who are not members of the cabinet will have no say in decisions, and the job of those who are members of the scrutiny committee will be merely to scrutinise. I see little role for councillors who are not members of the cabinet—many of them will be able to go home because they will have no say in the decisions that affect their communities. That is sad. We will have lost an opportunity to devolve power and to make councillors more accountable to the communities they represent, and we will have made it more difficult for the electorate to perceive the relevance of councillors and to exert some control over them.

For those and many other reasons, my position, that of my constituency Labour party and that of the Labour group on the council is one of opposition to both the cabinet system and the mayoral system, but of support for the committee system. Local government is probably the most democratic arm of the British state.

Mr. Thomas

I find myself in agreement with much of what the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith) said in support of new clause 7, but in total disagreement with his approach to local government in Wales. I support the principle of separating out the executive functions of local government, because that is a progressive and modern approach to local government management functions. The system can succeed and has been seen to do so in several areas in England and Wales.

None the less, I fear over-centralisation in local government. I believe that local government is truly devolutionist in that decisions are made at local level. I have serious doubts about the Government's current approach to local government—the imposition of a rigid template, a one-size-fits-all executive structure that local authorities must adopt. On those grounds, both Opposition new clauses—especially the Liberal Democrats' new clause 7—have much to recommend them.

I should have liked to avail myself of the Back-Bench privileges that were much discussed during the hour-long debate on the guillotine motion, but I was taken ill with food poisoning and thus prevented from tabling my own amendment, which would have cast the National Assembly for Wales in a central role. New clause 7 offers a way forward: at least in Wales, the Assembly could be the body that considers different arrangements and, in consultation with local authorities and local people and with the support of local people, enables a committee system to continue in Blaenau Gwent, for example, while a cabinet system is adopted elsewhere.

Let me set out some of the difficulties peculiar to Wales and the reasons why the one-size-fits-all approach will not necessarily work. For a start, there are the unitary authority areas, especially the large rural areas such as Powys, which has already been mentioned. There is the somewhat anomalous position whereby two of our unitary authorities—Powys and Gwynedd—have area committees. Where does an area committee fit into a cabinet system? That has not been addressed.

Ms Armstrong

indicated dissent.

Mr. Thomas

Well, I do not think that it has been fully addressed.

We in Wales have independent councillors—I should say that they are not crusty old Tory councillors. Independent councillors in Wales are curious beasts: many are members of Plaid Cymru or the Liberal Democrats, and one or two might even be members of the Labour party; however, the majority who stand as independents do so in rural areas because they are, in effect, the voice of the local community, often closely allied with farming interests. We have found that independent councillors fit ill into the cabinet system that has just been set up in my area.

We in Wales have limited options. Whatever happened in London, the mayoral option was ruled out for Wales when Russell Goodway adopted his course of action in Cardiff. The role of executive manager has never been tried in Wales and has no track record, so I doubt that any local authority will opt to have such a beast.

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Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central)

Why are elected mayors in Wales ruled out by the example the hon. Gentleman cites, given that it involves a non-elected mayor?

Mr. Thomas

The fact that it also involves a mayor taking too much executive power to himself will provide a warning to many areas. There are other reasons why mayors would not work in many rural areas, but, for brevity's sake, I shall not pursue that matter now.

If the Bill is passed in its current form, the cabinet system will become the de facto system of local government in Wales. That will lead to considerable local unhappiness and discontent.

Mr. Livsey

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the cabinet system will wholly exclude people living in the vast rural areas of Wales that we represent, which will be wholly excluded from the decision-making process?

Ms Armstrong

indicated dissent.

Mr. Thomas

The Minister evidently disagrees with the hon. Gentleman's observation, but that is what local people have told me. The Government must listen to the views of local people.

We in Ceredigion held a wide-ranging consultation on the cabinet system. Local community councils were dumbfounded and bemused by the way things were going; they did not understand how they would now relate to what they regarded as a local-member-led council. My council might be regarded as extremely old fashioned in that respect, but it achieves the best education results in Wales, so there must be something to be said for the traditional methods of carrying out council business in Wales.

We in Plaid Cymru favour the principle of establishing an executive, but we recognise the need to gain local people's support for any change, especially in rural Wales and other areas. However, so far the Government have singularly failed to persuade the majority of people in Wales and in England that their proposals offer the best local solution.

There is no doubt that people want to have a greater say in how their local government works—they might even want to shape their local government executive. However, the Bill imposes on that executive a shape that fails to give local people—and, in Wales, the National Assembly—a strong enough voice. In Wales, the way forward could legitimately involve the National Assembly to a greater extent. I hope that, in another place and at another time, close scrutiny will be given to this part of the Bill.

There should be an opt-out, perhaps along the lines of new clause 7, whereby, if local people working with the local authority come up with an alternative arrangement, they will be allowed to adopt it as their local government structure. Local government will not succeed without the encouragement and full support of its local community, but there are elements within the proposed structure that fly in the face of that principle.

Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

We are engaged in a century-old debate between centralisers and devolvers about centralisation and decentralisation. In the late 1970s, those working in local government were told by Anthony Crosland that the party was over. Then, we got dragged into the monetarist debate and we were told that part of our public expenditure was causing an economic crisis. The Tories tried to undermine both local government powers over public expenditure through rate capping and local government structures.

During that 20-year period, members of the Labour party worked to develop policies that would reinvigorate local government when a Labour Government were elected. That renewal was to be based on the return of powers and of resources. Then, within months of the general election, the debate was hijacked into discussion of structures: the argument was suddenly about the need for new structures, such as mayors, cabinets and so on. The thrust of our policy had held good for 15 years, and it is true that the current Government are releasing new resources and giving local government new powers; this Bill forms part of that. However, the Bill does not set councils free, but imposes on them a structure that none of them and no single major local government association wants.

Until months before the general election, most of our Front-Bench colleagues rejected the system. We criticised the previous Government's proposals with their mayoral options as ludicrous. However, the pressure from some groups in the Labour party with no experience of local government has led to the potential loss of democratic freedom that we are considering.

I support new clause 7 because it tries to re-establish some form of local freedom. We were told about the advantages of the mayor and cabinet option. We recently had a test of that system in London. It did not increase turnout, which remained roughly the same as for the Greater London council elections. It did not increase effectiveness. I have served in the new structure for the past six weeks and while I do not criticise the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), who has to work with the existing structure, it is not a model of effectiveness and efficiency. It was argued that the system would enhance the quality of the candidates and the elected mayor. It is ironic that, after 18 years, the same person is running London under the new system as under the old system.

The system's drawbacks are clear. It undermines local choice. New clause 7 seeks to re-establish at least the potential for retaining the option of a streamlined committee structure. The Government's proposals have the potential to establish a local oligarchy, which works in secret and is prone to corruption. From the Webbs onwards, the Labour party has argued that the committee structure enabled training in local democracy.

The Government's proposals establish two classes: the deciders and the spectators. We are wishing the parliamentary system on local government. What arrogance. It demonstrates on the part of the Labour party leadership contempt for local government and contempt for local councillors, in the same way as some have contempt for our party and our rank and file activists.

We are throwing away the opportunity of retaining all the options. The Government's proposals do not constitute modernisation, which allows organic growth of democratic systems at local level. They are a step back to a system that has failed elsewhere, and will fail in this country. At the local government conference, the Minister argued that there was a fourth option that would allow the flexibility that local government required and demanded. I ask the Minister to clarify in the brief time available whether the fourth option allows for the streamlined system of committee government for which Labour local government has argued. If not, I shall vote for new clause 7.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

I follow on from the last point that my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) made. I welcome the proposals in new clause 7, especially the tough tests for which it would provide. I would opt for that, but I would also settle for local government having the right to make the choice if it could pass the tests. I am not sure whether that was the view that the Minister expressed when she addressed the local government conference. She said that a fourth option existed. However, the Bill does not make clear the nature of that option and whether it includes the possibility of a reformed committee system. If not, we are closing down local government rather than opening it up.

I congratulate the Nottingham Evening Post on its responsible campaign in my area against the secret society. It has campaigned to open up local government to proper accountability and for the ability of local people to hold local government to account. If we do that, we have many options for inclusion and local choice, some of which are set out in new clause 7. One area in the county has already begun to follow that path. Newark and Sherwood has set out proposals for broadcasting its council meetings. The public can phone in directly to pose questions during committee meetings.

There are many ways in which to open up local government. I hope that the Minister will clarify whether we will present local people with a revised committee system as one of the options that they can choose for themselves. If we do not, we shall tie ourselves to the presumption that local government cannot lead, but must be led down a path of openness. That is a tragedy. The three options for which the Bill provides will sadly guarantee less openness.

Ms Armstrong

I am sorry that some of my hon. Friends did not attend some of the earlier debates because some interesting ideas have been presented. Much misunderstanding continues to exist; I am sorry about that, and I take some responsibility for it.

In response to the comments of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), I say that we have rehearsed the arguments often. I tell him and some of my hon. Friends that we have not suddenly discovered a problem with the committee system; it was identified by the Maud committee and, in 1993, by a joint Government and local government working party, which included all the local government associations. That joint working party stated: Most major policy decisions in practice are not taken by the full council, its committees or subcommittees but elsewhere within the ruling group—where there is a majority group—or in consultation with the leadership of other groups where there is a minority administration or coalition… Formal authority may rest with the full council, or with the committee, but the real authority rests with individuals. The Local Government Management Board, which was established by local authority associations to deal with support, training and negotiations, stated: A concentration of decision making powers in small groups outside the formal arenas characterised the committee system and that that had increased over the years. However, the pretence is maintained that the full council makes the decisions. As we all know, the reality is that it does not.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) claims that he is not enjoying the experience of serving in the Greater London Authority cabinet. My hon. Friend is not in the cabinet as an elected Member, but as an adviser and supporter. However, the public have the right to know that he is an adviser and that he is not giving advice secretly or without it being made public. That is a better system than the previous one.

The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) and I share an ambition to find ways in which to reflect the integrity of the aims of accountability, scrutiny and better contact with the public in the broad framework that we are trying to establish in the Bill. We are working in the same way on many matters. However, we are divided on one substantive issue. The new clause proposes that each council should have a separate method of doing things. That would mean that the statute book would have to recognise that, and uphold the individual constitutions of every single authority. That would lead to too much parliamentary interference. The new clause would provide for too much central control rather than the much looser framework that we seek.

I believe that the hon. Member for Bath is not paying sufficient attention to scrutiny and that several executives mean that fewer people are left to scrutinise. That is a key point for local government: there has not been substantial scrutiny in the past. Much greater scrutiny is required. Not only decisions, but their effect on individuals need to be scrutinised. I hope that the House will reject new clause 1 because it will take local government back to the problems that the Maud committee and the local government associations considered: decisions by small, unaccountable cabals. Nobody knew what those cabals were talking about. We are trying to move away from that. I believe that our fourth option will take us in the same direction as the hon. Member for Bath. I hope that hon. Members will reject the amendments.

7.30 pm
Mr. Waterson

We are not happy with what the Minister has said. It is the same tired old stuff. I invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to press the motion to a Division.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 110, Noes 314.

Division No. 249] [7.30 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet)
Amess, David
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Chope, Christopher
Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James Clappison, James
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey
Baldry, Tony Collins, Tim
Bell, Martin (Tatton) Cran, James
Bercow, John Davies, Quentin (Grantham)
Beresford, Sir Paul Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen
Blunt, Crispin Duncan Smith, Iain
Body, Sir Richard Evans, Nigel
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Fabricant, Michael
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman
Brady, Graham Fox, Dr Liam
Brazier, Julian Fraser, Christopher
Browning, Mrs Angela Gale, Roger
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Garnier, Edward
Burns, Simon Gibb, Nick
Butterfill, John Gill, Christopher
Gray, James Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian
Green, Damian May, Mrs Theresa
Greenway, John Moss, Malcolm
Grieve, Dominic Norman, Archie
Gummer, Rt Hon John O'Brien, Stephen (Eddisbury)
Hague, Rt Hon William Pickles, Eric
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie Prior, David
Hammond, Philip Robathan, Andrew
Hawkins, Nick Robertson, Laurence
Hayes, John Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Heald, Oliver Ross, William (E Lond'y)
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David Ruffley, David
Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas St Aubyn, Nick
Horam, John Sayeed, Jonathan
Howard, Rt Hon Michael Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Hunter, Andrew Shepherd, Richard
Jack, Rt Hon Michael Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Jackson, Robert (Wantage) Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Jenkin, Bernard Spring, Richard
Johnson Smith, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Swayne, Desmond
Kirkbride, Miss Julie Syms, Robert
Laing, Mrs Eleanor Tapsell, Sir Peter
Lait, Mrs Jacqui Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Lansley, Andrew Taylor, Sir Teddy
Leigh, Edward Townend, John
Letwin, Oliver Tredinnick, David
Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E) Trend, Michael
Lidington, David Tyrie, Andrew
Lilley, Rt Hon Peter Waterson, Nigel
Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham) Whitney, Sir Raymond
Loughton, Tim Whittingdale, John
Luff, Peter Wilshire, David
McIntosh, Miss Anne Yeo, Tim
MacKay, Rt Hon Andrew Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Maclean, Rt Hon David
McLoughlin, Patrick Tellers for the Ayes:
Madel, Sir David Mr. John Randall and
Maude, Rt Hon Francis Mr. Stephen Day.
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N) Brown, Russell (Dumfries)
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Browne, Desmond
Alexander, Douglas Buck, Ms Karen
Allan, Richard Burden, Richard
Allen, Graham Burgon, Colin
Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms Hilary Burnett, John
Ashton, Joe Burstow, Paul
Atherton, Ms Candy Butler, Mrs Christine
Atkins, Charlotte Cable, Dr Vincent
Austin, John Caborn, Rt Hon Richard
Baker, Norman Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies (NE Fife)
Ballard, Jackie
Barnes, Harry Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Barron, Kevin Cann, Jamie
Beard, Nigel Caplin, Ivor
Begg, Miss Anne Caton, Martin
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough) Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C) Chidgey, David
Bennett, Andrew F Clapham, Michael
Benton, Joe Clark, Paul (Gillingham)
Bermingham, Gerald Clarke, Charles (Norwich S)
Berry, Roger Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Best, Harold Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge)
Blackman, Liz Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)
Blears, Ms Hazel Clelland, David
Blizzard, Bob Clwyd, Ann
Blunkett, Rt Hon David Coaker, Vernon
Borrow, David Coffey, Ms Ann
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Cohen, Harry
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Coleman, Iain
Bradshaw, Ben Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Brake, Tom Cotter, Brian
Brand, Dr Peter Cousins, Jim
Breed, Colin Cox, Tom
Brinton, Mrs Helen Cranston, Ross
Crausby, David Hoyle, Lindsay
Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley) Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)
Cryer, John (Hornchurch) Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Cummings, John Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)
Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr Jack (Copeland) Humble, Mrs Joan
Hurst, Alan
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S) Hutton, John
Darling, Rt Hon Alistair Iddon, Dr Brian
Darvill, Keith Ingram, Rt Hon Adam
Davey, Edward (Kingston) Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W) Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Davidson, Ian Jamieson, David
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Jenkins, Brian
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C) Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)
Davis, Rt Hon Terry (B'ham Hodge H) Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)
Dawson, Hilton Jones, Rt Hon Barry (Alyn)
Denham, John Jones, Helen (Warrington N)
Doran, Frank Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Dowd, Jim Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)
Drew, David Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Jowell, Rt Hon Ms Tessa
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston) Keeble, Ms Sally
Edwards, Huw Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)
Efford, Clive Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth)
Ellman, Mrs Louise Keetch, Paul
Ennis, Jeff Kemp, Fraser
Fearn, Ronnie Kennedy, Rt Hon Charles (Ross Skye & Inverness W)
Fisher, Mark
Fitzpatrick, Jim Khabra, Piara S
Fitzsimons, Mrs Lorna Kidney, David
Flint, Caroline King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)
Flynn, Paul King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)
Follett, Barbara Ladyman, Dr Stephen
Foster, Don (Bath) Lammy, David
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings) Laxton, Bob
Foster, Michael J (Worcester) Leslie, Christopher
Fyfe, Maria Levitt, Tom
Galloway, George Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Gardiner, Barry Lewis, Terry (Worsley)
George, Bruce (Walsall S) Livsey, Richard
Gerrard, Neil Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Gibson, Dr Ian Llwyd, Elfyn
Gidley, Sandra Lock, David
Gilroy, Mrs Linda Love, Andrew
Godman, Dr Norman A McAvoy, Thomas
Godsiff, Roger McCabe, Steve
Goggins, Paul McCafferty, Ms Chris
Gordon, Mrs Eileen Macdonald, Calum
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E) McDonnell, John
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) McIsaac, Shona
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) McKenna, Mrs Rosemary
Grocott, Bruce Mackinlay, Andrew
Grogan, John Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert
Gunnell, John Mactaggart, Fiona
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale) McWalter, Tony
Hall, Patrick (Bedford) Mahon, Mrs Alice
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE) Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Harman, Rt Hon Ms Harriet Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)
Harris, Dr Evan Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Harvey, Nick Martlew, Eric
Heal, Mrs Sylvia Meacher, Rt Hon Michael
Healey, John Meale, Alan
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome) Merron, Gillian
Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N) Michael, Rt Hon Alun
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich) Milburn, Rt Hon Alan
Heppell, John Miller, Andrew
Hesford, Stephen Mitchell, Austin
Hewitt, Ms Patricia Moore, Michael
Hill, Keith Moran, Ms Margaret
Hinchliffe, David Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)
Hoey, Kate Mountford, Kali
Hope, Phil Mudie, George
Hopkins, Kelvin Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Murphy, Rt Hon Paul (Torfaen)
Howells, Dr Kim Naysmith, Dr Doug
Oaten, Mark Stevenson, George
O'Hara, Eddie Stewart, David (Inverness E)
Olner, Bill Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Öpik, Lembit Stoate, Dr Howard
Pearson, Ian Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
Pendry, Tom Stuart, Ms Gisela
Perham, Ms Linda Stunell, Andrew
Pickthall, Colin Sutcliffe, Gerry
Pike, Peter L Taylor. Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Plaskitt, James
Pollard, Kerry Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Pond, Chris Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Pope, Greg Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Pound, Stephen Temple-Morris, Peter
Powell, Sir Raymond Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E) Thomas, Simon (Ceredigion)
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Tipping, Paddy
Prescott, Rt Hon John Todd, Mark
Primarolo, Dawn Touhig, Don
Purchase, Ken Trickett, Jon
Quinn, Lawrie Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Rendel, David Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Roche, Mrs Barbara Turner, Neil (Wigan)
Rooker, Rt Hon Jeff Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Rooney, Terry Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Tyler, Paul
Rowlands, Ted Vis, Dr Rudi
Roy, Frank Walley, Ms Joan
Ruane, Chris Ward, Ms Claire
Ruddock, Joan Wareing, Robert N
Russell, Bob (Colchester) Watts, David
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester) White, Brian
Ryan, Ms Joan Whitehead, Dr Alan
Salter, Martin Wicks, Malcolm
Sanders, Adrian Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Sarwar, Mohammad
Savidge, Malcolm Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Sawford, Phil Willis, Phil
Sedgemore, Brian Wills, Michael
Shipley, Ms Debra Winnick, David
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S) Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Skinner, Dennis Wood, Mike
Smith, Angela (Basildon) Woodward, Shaun
Smith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale) Woolas, Phil
Worthington, Tony
Smith, Jacqui (Redditch) Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Smith, John (Glamorgan) Wright, Tony (Cannock)
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent) Wyatt, Derek
Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Squire, Ms Rachel Tellers for the Noes:
Starkey, Dr Phyllis Mrs. Anne McGuire and
Steinberg, Gerry Mr. Clive Betts.

Question accordingly negatived.

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