HC Deb 20 November 2001 vol 375 cc167-9
8. Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

What consultation process is being utilised to decide on the form of executive local councils adopt; and if he will make a statement. [13559]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Dr. Alan Whitehead)

Our approach is that it is for people to choose how they are to be governed locally, and that councils thus need to listen to the views of their local communities.

To help English councils we, together with the Local Government Association, have produced consultation guidelines to support our statutory direction that councils should use both quantitative and qualitative methods in consulting on proposals for new constitutional arrangements. The introduction of new council constitutions in Wales is a devolved matter, and I understand that the National Assembly for Wales has issued similar material to assist Welsh local authorities.

Mr. Llwyd

I thank the Minister for that reply. For obvious reasons, I will not mention Ipswich.

I have a non-political point to make. Councillors from across the political spectrum tell me that back-bench councillors feel excluded from the decision-making process on the four options. Are there proposals to increase the role of back-bench councillors in that process?

Dr. Whitehead

The new council constitutions, which are being adopted throughout the country as councils consult on their preferred options, include a substantial role for back-bench councillors in, among other things, the local authority scrutiny process. It is up to authorities to ensure that their scrutiny processes operate well and accord with the guidelines on constitutions. Back benchers have, in a variety of ways, a central role in ensuring that local authorities work well.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

Does the Minister agree that, whatever the structure of local councils, their funding is central to the delivery of high quality services? Urban districts in the north of England continue to be at a huge disadvantage in the existing funding system. We welcome the Government's decision to change the system of standard spending assessments on 1 April 2003, but can my hon. Friend say how the system will change, and how quickly?

Dr. Whitehead

The Government's settlements have been systematically favourable to local authorities in general, but I accept that the SSA system has meant that they have not always been perceived as transparent or equally applied throughout the country. Consequently, the Government have pledged fundamentally to reform the SSA system in the financial year 2003–04. We will simplify the system and ensure greater transparency, so that people who are concerned about funding can see how settlements have been worked out.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire)

Does not the Minister realise that there is considerable public concern that the executive structures are far more secretive than the old committee system, a fact confirmed by his predecessor last December, when she said: Let's have no fantasies about this being an open regime"? Does not that, combined with a delay until 2005 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 coming into force, mean that Labour's control-freakery has made local government less open in order to hide Labour-run councils' failures?

Dr. Whitehead

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman can make a very good case by comparing new constitutional arrangements with previous systems of local government. The new arrangements ensure that executives can make decisions crisply and in the interests of local electors. They also ensure transparency: decisions will be properly reported and, above all, properly scrutinised in public. That is how the new constitutions are working throughout the country.