HL Deb 11 March 1976 vol 368 cc1406-9

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether local authorities have powers to set time limits for council meetings and to provide that thereafter all policy decisions shall be taken without debate or vote.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, local authorities may take decisions only by vote, but they have powers, under the Local Government Act 1972, to make Standing Orders for the regulation of their proceedings and business. There appears to be no reason in law, therefore, to prevent a local authority from setting a time limit on debates, but decisions can be taken only by a majority vote of the members present and voting.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the London borough of Bexley has adopted a guillotine procedure and that, at its last meeting, important decisions were passed without comment or vote, including considerable rent increases? Would my noble friend agree that it is most regrettable that the Parliamentary guillotine procedure should be introduced at local authority level, where democracy must be seen to be in action?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I am aware of the problems of the London borough of Bexley and they have been debated in another place. My right honourable friend the Minister for Planning and Local Government then made his view plain but, subject to the statutory requirements—and I have referred to the fact that decisions require a majority vote—it is right that the procedure of debate and details of that kind should be left to the judgment of the council concerned. The Government have no power to intervene in such matters and I am sure that it would not be right for them to seek such powers.


My Lords, can the noble Baroness say whether there have been any complaints about this procedure? Is she aware that I can see certain dangers, though, as in everything else, there are good as well as bad sides? Would the noble Baroness agree that it might be desirable that, a little later on, there should be a full assessment of the scheme to see how it is working? Would it be a good thing if this House and another place could know whether there have been any complaints and whether there are any real difficulties involved?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, that is taking the issue rather wider than the original Question. But the local authorities Standing Orders on procedure are not subject to Ministerial approval. However, there are model Standing Orders which have been drawn up jointly by the former Ministry of Housing and Local Government in conjunction with the local authority associations, and they are published for the guidance and use of the individual authorities. The model which is in use at the moment was drafted in 1963, and the revision of that model draft Standing Orders has been delayed to give the new local authorities time to settle down. But I am sure that my right honourable friend will bear in mind the points made by the noble Baroness.


My Lords, I do not know where Bexley is, but I am given to understand from the questioner that it is somewhere in the United Kingdom. Does my noble friend agree that it is right and proper that local authorities ought to be left alone to produce their own Standing Orders on local government administration, instead of having their authority trespassed upon in this House by Question and Answer?

Baroness STEDMAN

That is what I said, my Lords.


My Lords, will the noble Baroness accept from me, as one of the inhabitants of the benighted borough of Bexley, that the citizens there sometimes need to be saved from their borough council?


My Lords, in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Slater, may I ask the nobel Baroness whether she is aware that I am not only a resident of the London borough of Bexley, but I am a ratepayer, too, and I pay my rates regularly, often under great protest?

Baroness STEDMAN

Yes, my Lords; I was so aware.


My Lords, would the noble Baroness give us an answer to a more general aspect of this matter? Let us suppose that a local authority, whether it be in Bexley or anywhere else, comes to a decision without there being a debate or a vote. If, subsequently, the officers of that authority implement that decision without it ever having been carried to a vote, might they not be in danger of being held to be ultra vires in the performance of their duties, if the matter had never been backed by a democratic decision?

Baroness S'TEDMAN

Yes, my Lords; they would be contravening the provisions of Schedule 12 to the Local Government Act 1972. Paragraph 39(1) of the Schedule says: subject to the provisions of any enactment (including any enactment in this Act) all questions coming or arising before a local authority shall be decided by a majority of the members of the authority present and voting thereon at a meeting of the authority.


My Lords, I am not sure that I followed the various answers given by the noble Baroness. But is there not a distinction between decisions taken without debate and decisions taken without vote? Those of us who have been familiar with the proceedings of another place know of many cases in which the guillotine falls and decisions are taken without debate. But I do not remember occasions when decisions have been taken without vote. I should have thought that decisions taken without vote might be a matter for legal questioning in the courts, whereas decisions taken without debate are a matter for the Standing Orders.

Baroness STEDMAN

Yes, my Lords; I suspect that the noble and learned Lord is right. But when the matter was raised in another place the reference was to decisions being taken "on the nod ". My noble friend refers to decisions being taken without debate or vote, and that would be contravening the Act.