HL Deb 17 December 1997 vol 584 cc689-718

7.26 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Tanworth

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. It is unusual for a measure of this kind to be introduced and sponsored from the Cross Benches. First, it seeks to give effect to one of the recommendations of the Select Committee on Relations between Central and Local government which I had the honour to chair and which reported unanimously on a cross-party basis in July last year. Secondly, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, indicated in a debate on an Unstarred Question on 23rd July this year (at col. 1500 of the Official Report) that since time had not been found for a Government Bill this Session, if I were to introduce a Private Member's Bill it would have government support. That is my justification. Before I go further, I must also declare an interest in that I am honorary president of the Local Government Association, which has welcomed the Bill.

This should be an important debate and there are a number of distinguished speakers taking part. I look forward with particular pleasure and interest to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Bassam. He will be speaking not only with his authority and experience as the leader of his own council but also as someone who over many years has taken a great interest in and spoken and written about good government and good practice and how to make local government more effective and more accountable. I am sure he will say things of great interest to us.

Before offering some comments on the main provisions of the Bill, perhaps I ought to try to answer the question: why do we want experimental arrangements in local government decision-taking arrangements? After all, the existing statutory committee structure is long established and people are used to it. Why do we want to change it? There are three rather different reasons. First, local authorities are very different in size and nature. What works well in one place does not necessarily work well in another. That is why the Council of Europe Charter of Local Self Government, which the present Government have signed, says in Article 6 that, without prejudice to more general statutory provisions, local authorities should be able to determine their own internal administrative structures in order to adapt them to local needs and ensure effective management". At present, there are unnecessary constraints preventing our own local authorities doing just that.

The second reason is that over many years local government has become both more complex and more political. As a result, most major policy decisions are now taken not in the formal committee structure but in smaller political groups of the majority party. Yet the need subsequently to process these decisions through the formal committee structure both blurs accountability between the executive and representative processes and is also one of the things which led the Audit Commission recently to conclude that councillors spend far too much time in committees rather than with their community.

As long ago as 1993 a working party established by the then Secretary of State for the Environment and comprising representatives of both central and local government suggested that the pretence that all councillors have equal power and equal responsibilities was no longer sustainable and that experiments in decision-taking arrangements which recognised that fact should be tried.

The third reason is that while there is widespread acceptance of the importance of local government itself, public interest in its actual processes is at an all-time low, which is reflected in the deplorably low turnout at local elections. The need for clearer accountability is matched by the need for democratic innovations which will encourage local people to exercise their democratic interest and authority over matters of direct concern to them. The Bill, however, is confined to ways of doing this through the arrangements for decision-taking by local authorities. Other possible ways of revitalising local democracy—for example, changes in voting arrangements—will have to await discussion in the context of the White Paper which the Government intend to publish next year.

Against those reasons for change, Clause 1(5) of the Bill sets out three overriding criteria for any experimental arrangements: first, that they should be likely to lead to decisions being taken in a more efficient and more accountable way; secondly, that they should be likely to lead to decisions being taken with greater regard to local government electors and other interested persons in the authority's area; and, thirdly, that they should include provisions for members of the authority—that means members of all political parties—to scrutinise the exercise of any functions to which the arrangements relate. Those three criteria underlie and inform the duties placed on councils, on the Secretary of State, on monitoring officers and on everyone else concerned in the Bill.

I wish to emphasise that the Bill is permissive and not prescriptive: no one would be forced to do anything. It would, however, allow authorities to apply to the Secretary of State for approval to operate an experimental scheme for a limited period and would enable him to make an order, subject to the negative resolution procedure in both Houses of Parliament, making temporary modifications to certain current legislation where these are necessary to allow the scheme to proceed and provided the criteria of efficiency, accountability and transparency are observed.

The Bill has 13 clauses of which the first three are the crucial ones. Clause 1, in addition to setting out the criteria to which I have referred, lists a menu of options which might improve the decision-making process but which are not permitted under current legislation. Broadly, these are the direct election of a mayor with executive functions from a single ward comprising the whole of the authority's area; arrangements to allow the appointment of executive or advisory committees, the membership of which does not conform to the existing requirements about political balance; arrangements to delegate the discharge of functions to individual members of the authority whether it is to lead members for particular issues or to an indirectly elected mayor; and arrangements for the appointment of scrutiny committees to scrutinise any functions of the authority and in particular those subject to an experimental scheme.

There are variants of these broad categories which are spelt out in the Bill but I wish to emphasise one point. The Bill specifies that experiments may not include the discharge by an ordinary member or by an elected mayor of any functions which, but virtue of any enactment, may be discharged only by the authority itself or by an officer of the authority; for example the level of the local budget and council tax which have to be set by the full council.

The objective of any experiment would be to sharpen and make more accountable the decision-making process. I should, however, add a word about the proposal to allow experiments with committees whose membership might be from the majority party only. The argument, which was endorsed by the joint working party in 1993, to which I referred, is that this would make the decision-making process both more expeditious and more transparent. It would be more expeditious because it would avoid the cumbersome two-stage process, to which I referred, and more transparent because discussion in a committee composed only of the majority party would be brought within the formal decision structure with advice from officials, minutes which would be made available, in particular to an all-party scrutiny committee, and so on. I ought, however, to make one thing clear. It would not be the intention to approve an experiment which involved a departure from the normal requirements of political balance on committees unless it was accompanied by an all-party scrutiny committee to preserve and formalise the rights of minority parties.

Clause 2 contains the procedure to be followed by an authority which wants to submit an experimental scheme for approval and Clause 3, the procedure to be followed by the Secretary of State when he receives such an application. The clauses are somewhat detailed and technical, but they are important since the Secretary of State will need to know not only the objectives of the scheme and how it would meet local needs, but also how the arrangements between members and officers and between the executive and other members would work; how conflicts would be resolved; and what the safeguards for propriety and access to information would be, and so on. Noble Lords will also note that before reaching his decision the Secretary of State is required to consult the Audit Commission as well as the Local Government Association. Clause 10 requires the authority's head of paid service and monitoring officer to make an annual report on the effect of an approved scheme which will go to the Secretary of State.

The other clauses deal mainly with arrangements for extending or varying an experimental scheme and repeat much of what is in the first three clauses. I would like to emphasise one point arising from them. An experimental scheme could be approved for up to a maximum of eight years in the first place, and it could be extended only once, again subject to the negative resolution procedure, for up to a further four years. No further extension would be possible without primary legislation since it is not felt that the possible modifications to existing legislation listed in the schedule to the Bill should be other than for a defined and temporary period. In other words, the whole purpose of the Bill is to allow certain temporary experiments and not to become a backdoor way of introducing long-term changes.

I do not suggest that any one of the options which would be permitted by the Bill, which applies only to England and Wales, is necessarily a panacea for revitalising local democracy. Indeed, an attempt to impose a uniform approach to structural reform at this stage might be a recipe for disaster. I am, however, convinced that, as the Select Committee strongly recommended last year, local authorities should be allowed to conduct pilot experiments subject to the safeguards proposed. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Hunt of Tanworth.)

7.40 p.m.

Baroness Maddock

My Lords, I am well aware of the background that has led to this Bill and I welcome the opportunity that it gives us all to raise the profile of a very important part of our democratic process, local government. I also welcome the idea of giving local councils greater freedom to experiment. I share the noble Lord's desire to make local government much more accountable; much more accessible, particularly for constituents; and more attractive so that people will put themselves forward as councillors to serve their communities.

However, I have many reservations about the detail of the Bill. As we shall have an opportunity to discuss the details in Committee, perhaps I may confine my remarks this evening to just two areas. I should like to concentrate particularly on accountability and on certain aspects of the experimentation, as well as on how we can make local government more attractive both to candidates and the voting public.

I start with accountability. I am afraid that, unless we see stronger safeguards in the Bill for back-benchers and opposition members, I am not sure that allowing individuals certain powers and setting up one-party committees will increase accountability. However, perhaps I may suggest one or two things that might do that: we could devolve committee structures to local areas, allow members of the public to question councillors: and allow members of the public the right to speak in committee on certain items. I believe that such changes are more likely to increase the accountability of our local councillors. Liberal Democrat councils have successfully introduced the latter proposals and have allowed public question times—quite often in the face of strong opposition from other parties, but sometimes with their agreement.

On the point about a committee structure, I believe that devolving the committee structure to local level has, where it has been tried, done an incredible amount to bring the public closer to their councils and to make the councillors more accountable to the public. I have experience of two councils which I know well and which are run by Liberal Democrats. One is Kingston and the other is East Hampshire. One is an urban authority; the other is a rural authority, but, more or less independently, they have set up similar systems. Councillors have found that when dealing with planning matters—always a difficult area for local councillors—they have been under great scrutiny from local people and they have been held accountable for the way in which they have voted on certain issues.

We must try to attract candidates to local government and help people to become interested in serving as local councillors. I agree that many people who could use their expertise and interests to the benefit of their local communities are at present deterred from standing for local councils. That is partly because the world of work has changed so much in recent years. The jobs market is very competitive and it is now difficult for people to take time off work so that they can devote the necessary time to being a local councillor. I believe that people have been put off for another reason: in recent years many decisions have been centralised. Local people feel that they do not have much power so they ask why they should put themselves out by spending a lot of time in the council when they can make only a few decisions. Finance has been a particularly difficult area for local councils. We have had capping and all sorts of restrictions so people question exactly what decisions are now left to local councillors. That area needs further consideration.

I turn now to the voters. I do not quite follow the logic of the argument that the committee structure would encourage voters to think that everything was much more accountable. I believe that that is up to the individual councillors. I agree with the noble Lord that councillors of all parties tend to get extremely hung up about the day-to-day running of their local councils and to forget who elected them to that place. Voting history shows that those councillors who take the trouble to keep in touch with their electorate, to go out and be involved in their local community and to bring the council nearer to that local community, are those who make the people in that community more interested in local government. I believe that that increases the turn-out. In an area in which I was very active when a councillor, we increased our turn-out because we made local government important to local people. We are well known for that as Liberal Democrats. We tend to publish what are called "focus leaflets" which at certain times cause consternation, but which have a purpose and ensure that people are kept in touch with what is going on.

I would not be a Liberal Democrat if I did not take this opportunity to say that I think that the electorate would be more interested in voting in local elections if we had a fairer and more representative electoral system. I know that that point was raised when the general matter was investigated. I hope that at some stage in the future that possibility will become a reality.

The intention of the Bill is laudable, but I do not think that the reality will quite meet the intention. The Bill seeks to improve the administrative running of councils, but we must also take a look at the democratic process. Achieving the right balance between those two is important. It may be that as the Bill progresses some of the safeguards about which I am concerned can be included in order to address those problems. I am aware that I am probably in a minority tonight in giving the Bill what could be called "lukewarm" support. Given that I am a Liberal Democrat and that we always wax lyrical about being the leaders of experiments in local government, that may surprise some people, but I hope that I have explained some of the reasons behind my views. I look forward to the rest of the debate and particularly to the speech of my noble friend Lady Hamwee who is a councillor of long standing, with a great deal of experience of experimentation in local government.

7.48 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, as is traditional, I am sure, on the occasion of making one's first speech in your Lordships' House, I have taken extensive advice on how one should conduct oneself. The most useful document is, of course, the single sheet of A4 paper provided by an unknown author from the Whips' Office which simply advises maiden speakers to be, unprovocative and refrain from saying anything that might give offence, politically or otherwise". So, having taken extensive advice I decided to join in a debate about local government. Looking around the Chamber this evening I am not so sure about the wisdom of that decision.

However, the subject of the debate is one which I find hard to resist—and here perhaps I should declare an interest as leader of one of the nation's better known local authorities, Brighton and Hove. The future of local government is very much on the agenda and I welcome the opportunity to make some observations on the content of the Local Government (Experimental Arrangements) Bill, standing in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Tanworth.

The noble Lord is, in my view, to be congratulated on an act of outstanding bravery in bringing this measure forward. Looking at the Rowntree Trust poll of 1,600 councillors conducted in 1994, I note that only 3 per cent. of those members decided that they liked the idea of an elected mayor and just 13 per cent. favoured the principle of executive Cabinet-style structures. Yet national public opinion polls show 70 per cent. to 90 per cent. support for such measures.

The debate about the modernisation of local government is one that will increase in intensity. It is not one that will always attract widespread support, largely because of a misunderstanding of the intent of the proposals and their effect. After all, this is an enabling piece of legislation. It provides an opportunity for change; it does not prescribe change. In so doing it does not offer either carrot or stick. For this reason it is to be welcomed. Local authorities have a choice. They can embrace its principles or continue working as they do currently. The choice is theirs. Its principal innovatory features would enable local councils to create directly elected executive leaders or mayors, establish political executives or cabinet style local government, delegate some decisions to lead or executive councillors and arrange for the appointment of scrutiny or select committees. All are important measures in whole or part.

Variants of these models can be put in place, but whatever they are they must conform to the important principle of making local authorities more accountable, efficient and effective. All of these objectives must be in the public interest and the interests of good public service.

Some councils, and no doubt many councillors, will ask why they should embrace this agenda for change. To them I have this observation to make. Why is it that in almost any public opinion survey undertaken the public continue to be largely ignorant or ill-informed about the business of local democracy and yet also crave more information and access to their local council and its decision making processes?

Authorities like my own, Lewisham, Camden, York, Bradford, South Somerset, Sutton, Derbyshire, and many, many others, have over the past few years undertaken extensive efforts to develop community planning and consultation mechanisms to open up the democratic processes of local governance and let the people into its "secret garden". Yet with all of this activity, and no doubt with unqualified success in terms of feedback, are we really creating a more participative local government system or a system in which people really find they have a say? If so I fancy that we would see larger turnouts in local elections.

The fact is that in terms of performance league tables—as a Brighton and Hove Albion fan I know about these things—.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

From top to bottom!

Lord Bassam of Brighton

—the UK occupies the bottom spot in terms of public participation in local elections. Just 40 per cent. traditionally vote. We sit last in a table of EC turnouts: Denmark has 80 per cent., France 68 per cent., Germany 72 per cent. and Italy 85 per cent. How much democratic legitimacy can we in local government claim when so few feel motivated to participate?

My case for change is based on the need to renew and engage in the democratic process so that in the future we do not go through the excessive centralisation and accretion of power to the centre which over the past two decades we have experienced. We need to make local government more relevant to our people, more active, more alive and—dare I say—more fun. We need to open up its structures and make the business of government a touch more exciting.

I argue that mayoral contests will increase turnouts and excite local electors and generate local debate. The media will be interested, and they will become the focus of strong civic leadership that develops in our communities. If it takes the creation of a directly elected political leader to do it it is worth giving it the green light. My guess is that the debate in which your Lordships' House engaged on Monday about the creation of a greater London authority with an elected mayor will in a few years lead to an explosion of interest from provincial towns and cities in changed democratic forms. No one will want to be left behind, especially as London again becomes a focus for excellence in governance and a pace setter in attracting inward investment from the business sector and regenerating public services. London will become an international cultural and financial capital and be known as such for its democratic voice.

The long-term trends in local government take us inevitably in the direction of a new agenda for the revitalisation of civic life. I believe that local leaders are indirectly elected mayors already. Most local authorities have informal cabinets. I believe that for the past 50 years the very notion of good local governance has been under threat. We need to reverse that process. Measures like those proposed in the Bill at last give us the opportunity to do things both well and differently. They will enable us to get more from the undervalued and often ignored talents of elected councillors. They will enable Government to give councillors back trust and responsibility and enable those of us involved to carve out a new, exciting and powerful strategic role for democratic public services.

Our local authorities spend in excess of £45 billion annually in the provision of those services, yet we invest little in training and improving the quality and calibre of councillors who make vital and critical decisions that affect the daily lives of all citizens. The experimental arrangements Bill will encourage local government to introduce structures and processes which should be more relevant, open and accountable to the people in whose name we seek to serve. It should encourage authorities that are strategically better focused, well led and act with a sense of purpose and vision. It should help those of us who are committed to the modernisation and improvement of government to re-fashion local government more in the image of the new millennium and less in the shadow of the Victorians who provided us with such a rich legacy but, sadly, have left us with a system of committee-led, process-dominated and often faceless and over-bureaucratised councils.

We have a willing and supportive Government that want to help local government rediscover its basis and origins. We have a willing agent of change in the Local Government Association, who have argued for and given aid to the Bill. Sir Jeremy Beecham said: Being a councillor should be about representing the local community, both at ward and authority level. Reviewing our procedures and experimenting with better ones under the proposals…should mean that the structures allow councillors to be more effective representatives of their communities. These and other reforms will help to renew local government as an accountable democratic force for leading local communities and promoting their interests. I hope that every local authority will look at its procedures and explore the possibilities for experiment contained in this Bill". I believe that those are very powerful and important sentiments.

If I have one minor criticism of the measure it is that it is perhaps not enabling enough. Let local electors have a say in triggering a local debate on new democratic arrangements, perhaps by obliging consultation or creating scope for a trigger ballot. Let us open the gate to local government's secret garden. I believe that there is much talent and potential for innovation in local government. All of us should give our warm blessing and support to this Bill and begin the revitalisation of provincial local government tomorrow.

7.57 p.m.

Baroness Platt of Writtle

My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, on his maiden speech which is based on long and substantial experience in local government and is spoken from the heart on behalf of local democracy. I hope that in future he will take a full part in the work of this House now that he has made such a good start. Perhaps I should declare a double interest when I say that council work forms a good basis for work in this House. It is even better when you are born and brought up in Essex.

It is with great regret that I express disappointment with the Bill, especially as it has been introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Tanworth, who was such an excellent chairman of the Select Committee on Central and Local Government Relations on which I also served. In the report of that committee Rebuilding Trust it was recommended that local government should be given more freedom to innovate, with which I agree. We had in mind a wide variety of possibilities which would allow local authorities to experiment to "improve their democratic legitimacy", particularly emphasising that "different models might suit different authorities". The report referred to a number of different ideas and ways of "responding more quickly to proposed partnerships perhaps with the private sector", or of "undertaking activities considered to be in the interests of their area", and "annual elections, referenda, elected mayors etc." which would "restore an interest in local democracy" and "promote a return to civic pride". We did not deliberately come down in favour of any one of those options.

I served in local government for about 25 years at district and county council level, so I believe deeply in its importance and freedom to act in the interest of its communities. In my early days politics took a back seat and there were no group meetings. Like Cross-Benchers here, we voted according to our conscience and local situation. I recognise that those days are gone, although witnesses told us: there was evidence that people wished to see less party involvement in local politics". My disappointment over the Bill is that its suggestions are too narrow. They relate particularly, as laid down in Clause 1(2), to elected mayors, single members of the authority being able to discharge any of the functions of the authority acting alone, and to the appointment of committees of the authority: otherwise than in accordance with the political balance requirements". Those are not the kind of arrangements that will improve local democracy. They will only give more powers, and arbitrary powers at that, to the majority party, which I do not believe most local people would want. The Bill, I agree, then goes on to provide for protective arrangements; but all that does, it seems to me, is to increase bureaucracy. It would certainly make it more difficult for the ordinary back-bencher to play a full part in the workings of the council.

My Lords, when you are elected as a councillor, you are there to represent your village or ward in a town. As you take more part in the workings of the council, you soon learn that you cannot realise all your ideals; you certainly cannot have all your own way; and you have to consider other members' needs on behalf of their localities. All those things are naturally subject to resources being available. In my experience there are never enough resources, and money is always tight.

However, in the sub-committees and working groups, politics are not so high on the agenda; compromises can be reached and collective decisions made, taking into proper account the needs of minorities. Eventually, later in the process, there will be political disagreement on financial priorities, and other major policy decisions. It is very important that at the early stages of decision making local minorities should be present and have their say. Parish councils, for instance, which are not usually political, should be able to put forward their solutions to local problems. Perhaps I may declare an interest as president of the Essex Association of Local Councils. That is the essence of local government. Political caucuses, of whatever party, are no substitute.

Subsection (5) tries to reintroduce accountability, scrutiny, and the views of local electors. In my view that is too late. The die will be cast and it will be much more difficult to unravel a complex decision. I am not in favour of elected mayors, although I am not against experiments being tried. I believe that far too much power is put into the hands of one person. It smacks of some people's idea of the ideal committee—the committee of one. That is not my ideal.

The elected assembly can criticise the mayor's actions, but it will be much more difficult for that assembly to be in possession of all the information necessary to criticise objectively, and even more for it to force the mayor to change a policy. I have seen an elected chief executive in action in Germany. In that case, which is similar, it certainly led to arrogance towards the other elected members.

I hope that the Bill does not pass into law in its present form. I am in favour of more freedom for local government, but should like to see far less prescriptive measures. I should like to see a more bottom-up approach to powers for innovation, and more emphasis on subsidiarity at local level, to which we referred in our report.

As Robin Wendt, Chief Executive of the Association of County Councils, said in evidence: it is time that local government was actually trusted to be responsible rather than continually being told what it ought to do very often in considerable detail". Once again, the Bill goes into too much detail. Responsible local authorities, responding to their own difficult local problems in an innovative manner, can develop policies that other local authorities may decide to adopt too, once again adapting them to their own local situations. Sometimes those policies may later be adopted nationally, which shows their practicality. The Bill does not fulfil the Select Committee's ideas or give enough freedom to innovate at a local level.

8.5 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

My Lords, I welcome the Bill and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Tanworth, on bringing it forward. As a former member of the Oxford and Birmingham City Councils, he has been rather modest about the effect of these proposals. I see them as being an essential element in the rejuvenation of local government and local democracy, and in the potential that local councils have to give leadership to their local communities.

I have lived in Birmingham for 20 years, and I have seen the effect of a local authority pulling its community together, leading it from a situation in the early 1980s when so many of our traditional industries and businesses went to the wall, to attracting new investment, investing in the arts, and new services such as the National Exhibition Centre and the convention centre, to trying to develop as well, and in parallel, an improvement in services such as education.

With cross-party support, local authorities such as Birmingham have shown what can be done to rebuild confidence in a community. What Birmingham has done, a number of other local authorities have also done. The history of local government over many years now has been negative. Since the war there has been a continual taking away of power from local government. That started in the 1940s with electricity, gas and health. Before the formation of the NHS, the LCC was the largest hospital authority in the world. In 1974 NHS responsibilities, which local authorities then had, were taken away, along with water. Since then the police and major parts of the education service have gone. Throughout that process we have seen central government putting many more controls on local government and capping their ability to raise revenues locally.

It is hardly surprising that the public has lost confidence and interest in what local authorities do; hardly surprising that voter turnout is so disappointing; and that local authorities have found it difficult to get away from that rather depressing picture, when their decision-making processes rest so much on a committee structure bequeathed to local government by our Victorian forefathers.

As someone who worked in the NHS for many years, I have to admit that local government does not have a monopoly of committees and working groups. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said, the Audit Commission report, which was published this year, stated that too much of a burden is placed on councillors, often unproductive, by committee meetings which are focused on detailed issues. It went on to say that such committees could consume large amounts of management time, slow down decisions, and duplicate one another's work.

It is worse than that. The committee system has inhibited strategic leadership in many local authorities. It has undermined the role of managers and officers in managing services. It has inhibited the integration of services. I often think that the local government committee structure, reinforced by powerful departments and committee chairs, parallels the problem that we have in Whitehall in terms of achieving integrated approaches across departmental barriers.

There are examples of local councils which have attempted to innovate in the decision-making process by introducing provider committees and policy committees; setting up time-limited task forces which have attempted to cross departmental boundaries; decentralisation to local committees; changing the management philosophy from one of a hierarchical philosophy to one based on outputs; and the output of the work in relation to the public.

So much more needs to be done. If local government is to recover, if we are to have dynamic democracy at local level, it must take a more radical approach to changing the way in which it makes decisions. That is why I welcome the Bill so much. I believe that the prospect of elected mayors, single councillor responsibility and a cabinet system of Government will offer the opportunity of greater strategic leadership and greater public interest. I believe that more people will wish to stand for election to local government.

I should have liked the Bill to have gone further. I should like to have seen greater ability for councils to devolve to local committees. As Professor John Stewart and George Jones have written: Local authorities which have considered imaginative schemes for decentralisation have found themselves restricted by legal constraints about the delegation of powers and about co-option". They go on to argue: It is important to balance the concentration of power in the Executive with measures of decentralisation". A number of issues will need to be teased out as the Bill progresses. There are the needs of the minorities, as pointed out by the noble Baroness, Lady Platt; the balance between the greater authority which will be given to the political leadership of a council; and the effectiveness of scrutiny arrangements which need to be put into place. I strongly support the concept of a Select Committee approach.

Then there is the need to ensure that back-benchers within local authorities have a real job to do. Scrutiny certainly, ward work of course, but I also believe that they must have an opportunity to take part in policy development. What happens if relationships between, say, the elected mayor and the council break down? What happens if the council consistently rejects the major proposals put forward by the mayor? What happens if the mayor's behaviour is deemed to bring the local authority into disrepute? How can we introduce safeguards into the process which cannot be used by one party, which might have the majority of councillors, to undermine the position of the elected mayor who may come from another political party?

Furthermore, I am somewhat concerned about the wide discretion which the Bill gives to the Secretary of State to make modifications of enactments. We need to understand the implications of that. Finally, as regards openness, I am a critic of the committee system in local government. But in one sense at least it has to its credit that it is an open system. It is open to the public to go and hear decisions being made. It is important that in making these new arrangements we do not move away from a principle that decision making in local government should be open.

The great beauty of the Bill is that it allows for innovation, experimentation and the sharing of good practice. I believe that it is timely for local government to be reinvented and reinvigorated and for the next 20 years to see powerful democratic local councillors listening to their public and having a leadership role to play on behalf of their local communities. I very much support the Bill in that context.

8.14 p.m.

The Earl of Kintore

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Hunt of Tanworth on bringing forward his private Bill tonight and introducing it so clearly. I wish to say a little about elected mayors, who first came to my notice during evidence given to my noble friend's Select Committee into relationships between central and local government in 1995-96. The issue of elected mayors was kept alive by a speech made by Mr. Tony Blair to a local authority conference in July 1996; by a discussion paper published by the Fabian Society in March this year entitled More than the Flower Show—Elected Mayors and Democracy; and, of course, in the proposals for a mayor for London contained in the Greater London Authority (Referendum) Bill which had its Second Reading in this House on Monday.

An elected mayor is foreign to the way in which local government is run in this country. Indeed, the 1986 Hillingdon judgment stated that there is at present no statutory power for the council or for committees or for sub-committees to delegate decisions to individual councillors.

By "elected mayor" I mean someone who is elected by all the people he or she must serve within a local authority area and who, once elected, will assume executive responsibility for that area. In our great cities, where party politics are strong, I imagine that the person elected will probably be a prominent politician and probably the current leader of the authority. And if a system of proportional representation is used in the election it should ensure that whoever is elected commands broad-based support. In country areas, where party politics are less strong, the successful candidate for mayor could well be someone who belongs to no political party but is fiercely ambitious for the welfare of his local area. A successful elected mayor could achieve national prominence, strengthen the local government side of the central-local government relationship, and help to reinvigorate local democracy, which is in danger of disappearing.

In a national survey recently carried out by Strathclyde and Glasgow universities as part of the ESRC local governance programme, more than 70 per cent. of the public supported the introduction of elected mayors, while only 16 per cent. of councillors liked the notion. I do not see that councillors should be unduly concerned. Certain decisions, such as the level of the local budget and council tax, would still have to be made by the whole council as required by law. Committees will still need to be manned and decisions taken. Once the executive and the councillors have agreed how the local authority is to be run in all its aspects, the local councillor will have an important role to check that what was agreed is being carried out and to complain if it is not. Local councillors will still have their all-important role of representing the interests of their electors. They should become more effective and that will help to stimulate local interest in local affairs. Whereas councillors will be all right under an elected mayor system, there might be some redundancy among whoever is carrying out the role which the elected mayor will assume. That probably means the current chief executive.

My noble friend's Bill will allow local authorities to experiment with the ways they carry out their jobs with a view to doing them better. I hope that they will rise to the challenge. Mr. Michael Clarke and others at the School of Public Policy at the University of Birmingham, in their pamphlet Executive Mayors for Britain?, make the point that there is no single model for decision making that will suit all councils. Indeed, from the experience of systems in America and Germany, it appears that there is a wide difference between systems where there are clear executive arrangements and also a variety within systems.

In his speech on the Greater London Authority Bill the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, speaking of an elected mayor for London, said: I for one would not be at all surprised if the London example were soon adopted by other cities, large and small, in the United Kingdom".—[Official Report, 15/12/97; col. 429.] Greater London will not have its elected mayor before the year 2000. By then, cities such as Bristol, Newcastle, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Brighton could have elected mayors and London might be approaching those cities to see how it is done. I hope we shall shortly give this Bill a Second Reading.

8.20 p.m.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, for the first time in my 17 years in this House, I must begin with an abject apology to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Tanworth, and the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, for not being here at the beginning of the debate. I should explain that I was attending the annual reception of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. I informed my colleagues there that the House of Lords was debating the abolition of nuclear weapons and I told them that it could not possibly abolish them before eight o'clock. I was wrong.

However, I was fortunate in coming in for the first minute of the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Bassam. It is not often that Brighton is doubly represented in one of your Lordships' debates. Perhaps it is an omen for the future.

When I read the Bill, I found it somewhat surprising because circumstances have changed to such a great degree since the Select Committee, which the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, chaired in the last Parliament, reported last summer. At that time we lived in a very quiet and unchanging world. The idea of having elected mayors or making other changes in local government could have been regarded as a somewhat radical proposal. But we are now in a very different world. We are being subjected to a series of major constitutional changes. Some may think well of them and others less well but they could result in, for example, Scotland passing under the rule of Mr. Alex Salmond; Wales passing under the rule of the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas; Guernsey perhaps being ruled by Mr. Geoffrey Robinson; and London will be run, as we understand it, either by the noble Lord, Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare or by Mr. Ken Livingstone or, as in "The Gondoliers", a sort of joint rule which would be interesting.

Therefore, it is in that perspective that we must judge this modest suggestion. It did not figure, I think, in the article in The Times today by Mr. Anthony Barnett, setting out the great changes which have already been made or are about to be made. But then Mr. Barnett combines an extraordinary degree of ignorance, folly and self-righteousness which is not unique in British politics, although it is occasionally to be observed. What we are discussing is something which, as both noble Lords on the other Benches have pointed out, appears to reflect—unlike some of the major constitutional changes—some kind of local demand. When we had witnesses before us in the Select Committee I was struck by the feeling that there were a lot of very capable people, both elected members of local authorities and, even more perhaps, some of their officers who compared extremely favourably with the Whitehall civil servants whom we examined. I felt that there was a good deal of talent not being utilised fully by the nation as a whole.

It is true that, as I remember it, they did not attach so much importance to the internal reorganisation of what I gather we are supposed to call the decision-making process as they did to the recovery of some control over their own affairs which could be brought about only if there were some relationship between the way people voted in local government and the forms of expenditure which the local authority was allowed to make. Indeed, they were so keen on that that at one moment—of course, it was only a momentary aberration on my part—I thought that they really wanted the poll tax back; but perhaps that is to exaggerate.

In any event, it is obviously interesting and important that if that demand exists, we should find some way of cultivating it. The low turn-out in local government elections, which has been referred to, is not proof conclusive of public apathy but at any rate is a prod to think about it again.

The difficulty is whether these proposals seem likely in themselves to re-create the sense that there is not only a local identity but some local thrust towards particular solutions of those problems. The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, referred to our Victorian predecessors from whom we inherited roughly, although with many changes, the structure of elected local government which prior to that had not existed in any serious fashion. Conscious as I am of the decision-making in Brighton in recent years, the most obvious example of defiance of our Victorian predecessors has been the abolition of most of the public conveniences in that town. I do not know what the Victorians would have said about that or whether, with a better decision-making process, it could have been avoided. Nevertheless, there are clearly arguments in favour of at least an experiment. Will people feel about a mayor as they do not feel about the leader of a council, even if that leader has the most excellent qualifications?

Therefore, I am inclined to say that on the whole there is an argument for what is proposed being tried. I believe that it should be tried first in areas where there is a clear undercurrent of popular demand for a greater say in local affairs. Unlike the changes in boundaries we have had to put up with in local government, which vitiates a good deal of what one is trying to do, I do not believe that it should be universal, at least to begin with.

The committee was precluded from considering the problems of London government. We took no evidence relating to London. Given the fact that we are, so it seems, to have that mayoralty, single or dual as the case may be, I should have thought that London is perhaps rather low on the list of places where we should experiment with another tier of mayors. It is bad enough going round Westminster and bumping into tourists. If you bump into mayors on every corner, that would be an additional problem. If there is an amendment to delete London from the Bill it would have my support, but in other respects I think it certainly ought to go forward.

8.30 p.m.

Lord Sefton of Garston

My Lords, I start with an apology as I could not be present when the report of our committee was received in this House. I extend my apologies and thanks to the chairman of the committee at this stage. I welcome the opportunity to do so here because of my failure to be present at the appropriate time. However, I cannot match the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, as regards his summary of what is happening in local and other government.

Some 50 years ago I became involved in various ways in local government. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, has given examples of certain matters which have ceased to be governed locally. Therefore there is no need for me to dwell on that point, as I had intended to do if the debate had taken a certain course. I expected this debate to be short because, after all, we are merely proposing that local authorities should tell us what they think about innovation, and whether or not they wish to innovate or introduce various provisions.

I thought that I could say a few words about mayors of cities but then I thought that I had better not do so. However, several have done so. In the debate the other day about London noble Lords were talking about all kinds of matters other than the relevant Bill. The Bill concerned a referendum and whether that could gain the support of people in London. However, we heard about mayors and all kinds of things. As regards the possibility of having a mayor, I would say only that anyone who has visited Washington at a time when the mayor was about to be changed, and has had an interview with the officers who were appointed to carry out the job of governing the city, will never support the appointment of a mayor. The place was bedlam. Every officer was trying to elicit support to ensure that he kept his job when the new mayor was elected. Therefore I would never support the idea of a mayor. We have mayors, some of whom are good and some of whom are not. There is one blessing as regards the mayor of a major city: he will probably be the mayor for only 12 months. After that someone else can be appointed.

The job of a mayor is to represent what a city is all about. Sometimes a mayor has to carry out his job with his tongue in his cheek, but at least he does it. He speaks for both sides in the council. I do not think anyone can suggest that if we had an assembly and a mayor in London there would be no difference of opinion between the two. Of course there would be differences of opinion. Then the mayor would be in difficulty or the assembly would be in difficulty. But one thing is certain, sooner or later that row between the mayor and the assembly would reach the ears of the public. Such a situation is not on.

I have also visited Chicago at the time of Mayor Daly. Some said that he was popular but others detested him. He told me explicitly that if the officers in Chicago did not pay their "subs" to the right party, they would no longer be officers in Chicago. There was a complete acceptance of that in Chicago at the time. Anyone who has studied the history of Chicago and Mayor Daly will know some of the things that went on in Chicago. That should teach us not to have mayors. At this stage we should not tell local government what to do. In fact we should never tell local government what to do. We should have faith that they will tell us what they want to do. At this stage we should not be saying, "We do not think local government should do this or that". The debate tonight has given me pause for thought. What we need is a real debate on local government.

I do not know whether the position of local government will revert to that pertaining in 1945 or earlier. All I know is that in 1944 local government was responsible for many matters. I ask myself over and over again: will that situation recur? If anyone drives round a major city today in a motor car, the first thing he will find is that it is difficult to drive through the city centre as it is full of buses. Those buses are nearly all empty, even at peak times. They all pour out fumes into the atmosphere, poisoning the city. Why does that happen? It happens because the management of those buses is no longer in the hands of the local authority. We have moved away from the position in the 1940s to a situation where local government effectively does not exist. The management of local affairs reposes in the boardrooms of various offices.

Local government once managed water, electricity and gas. Anyone could make representations to local authorities. That is no longer the case. How long will it be before we discover that the private sector will not fund the necessary investment adequately to provide those facilities in the long term? There is already talk in the water industry as to whether or not there are failings in the provision of that service. The private sector is certainly failing as regards the provision of decent buses in appropriate routes in city centres. When the services fail, central government will look to local government to sort things out.

We should not criticise this Bill on the ground that it merely allows local authorities to propose certain measures. If we want to examine fundamentally the government of this country we must go into the matter much more deeply than merely examining local government. Soon the transport systems within cities and conurbations will fail. When those transport systems fail, some so-called local authority will have to consider the problems. I give an example from the place I know best; namely, Liverpool. It will be no use the local authority merely considering the problems that arise in the city centre of Liverpool; it will have to look also at Merseyside.

When we talk about innovations in the operation of government, we must bear in mind that we may have to consider what kind of government we want. The truth is that local government is moribund. We shall not reinvigorate local government unless we attract people's attention to it and get them involved in it. This Bill is an attempt to stimulate that debate among local authorities so that they will contribute to the general debate about local and national government. It is important that we examine how we are governing our community. When someone talks to me about sovereignty as regards local government or national government, I ask, where is it? That sovereignty has been moved firmly and sharply to the private boardroom and we cannot do much about it.

8.40 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, it is a great delight to welcome to the Chamber another good friend of local government. I look forward to hearing the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, when he is being controversial.

Like other noble Lords, I must declare an interest as a serving councillor in a London borough. Like others, I, too, was privileged to serve on the Select Committee, which was unanimous not only in its report but also its admiration for the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Tanworth. That makes me particularly sorry to sound a note of unease, but I have a sense of disappointment at opportunities that might have been taken in the Bill. I am not alone this evening in making these points.

When the Select Committee commented on the desirability of innovation, it referred to powers as well as administration: the powers of local government, and the electoral arrangements applying to local government. The noble Lord, Lord Beloff, reminded us of that. He made some trenchant statements to some of the officials who gave evidence. He has also provided me and, I believe, other colleagues with a great deal of material for speeches based on the comments he made about some of the absurdities that he exposed during the course of our proceedings.

Paragraph 3.32 of the Select Committee report referred to the need for popular support, improvement in turnout, finding ways to involve the public, and strengthening local democracy. The paragraph indicated that one method was to allow individual authorities the option of moving to different electoral systems for local elections.

In paragraph 3.31 the report floated some options for experiment: the separation of powers into an executive and legislative branch; the use of local referenda or local proportional representation. It is important to regard the proposals in the Bill as merely a selection, a choice from the menu, of the totality of the ideas which the Select Committee debated and recommended.

After consultation in 1991, it was stated that the Government wished to ensure that local government attracted good councillors who could represent the electorate effectively. I agree that that is important. My noble friend Lady Maddock mentioned the issue, as did the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, who referred to career development. Those of us who may have become a little stuck in our ways in our authorities may have failed to recognise adequately the importance of encouraging colleagues and of recognising the constraints on them. They cannot drop their day jobs. They have to cope with the strains of their "real life", of their careers. However, there is a responsibility on us to assist them to develop their political careers as well.

The committee structure is not perfect. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, about the diversity of local authorities and the need to reflect that diversity in the structure. But we must be alert to the inherent dangers there may be in some changes, such as devaluing the role of local representatives, discouraging general local interest which often presages the first step into political activity, balancing the relationship between casework and management, the creation of a second class of members, undermining representative democracy, and introducing personality politics if that is to the detriment of democracy.

That is not to say that we on these Benches do not support innovation and experimentation. My noble friend has referred to what can be done without changes in legislation. I agree again with the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, that greater freedom to devolve the work of local authorities would be much valued. There is scope, too, for introducing different combinations of subject within committees—thematic committees—and recognising the need for a more holistic approach to what local authorities do. However, any experimentation has to be subject to safeguards and should provide a sufficiently wide menu of options.

The context for the Bill is not just the relationship between local and central government. The proposals are now within the context of freedom of information measures which the Government are bringing forward. I welcome that. It would be ironic if there were to be more access to information on the part of the public while at the same time the rights of minority and back-bench councillors were reduced. I shall be interested to examine the interrelationship of the developments.

The proposals are within the context of the work of the Nolan Committee (now the Neill Committee) on openness and standards. I fear that within the proposals there may be scope for blurring the distinction between government and management and for obscuring the reasons underlying decisions. The noble Lord, Lord Beloff, talked about the term decision making, as we are now to call it. The Bill is about improved decision making. But what is an improvement? I agree that it is important that decisions are taken speedily. But is that more important than that they have local support and local relevance? Speed is important but it is not the only criterion.

The Bill proposes the possibility for individuals to fulfil different roles. An individual can fulfil the requirements of accountability and democracy—although I suspect that it is easier for an individual to slide out of those requirements than when within a committee structure. I do not advocate personality-free local government, but again I wish to be assured that there will be proper safeguards.

The Secretary of State is to consult the Audit Commission and the Local Government Association. Perhaps I should congratulate the association on what is likely to be its first mention in legislation. But, as has been said, there is no requirement on the local authority to consult locally. The Bill might indeed have provided the opportunity for local referendums. The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, referred to trigger ballots. I think that that phrase would get us off the hook when working out whether we should talk about "referendums" or "referenda". I thank him for that.

I am not in favour of elected mayors but I think that local communities should decide. Proposals for experiment should be put to them.

We do not know what criteria the Secretary of State will use for his decision. What criteria will be contained in the Secretary of State's guidance? Clause 1(5) of the Bill refers to accountability, regard for the electorate, and scrutiny arrangements. If those arrangements are inadequate, does it mean that the application will be refused? I look forward to examining what is meant by the provisions at Committee stage.

A scrutiny committee will be extremely important if single party committees are to take decisions. But a scrutiny committee, by definition, is backward looking. I have had the opportunity to take part locally in the work of a performance review committee. Its best work was in anticipating future developments and helping to set standards in advance.

Clause 1(5)(b) refers to having regard to the views of local government electors and other interested persons". That is what councillors have to do all the time. Perhaps I am over suspicious, but I detect a degree of populism within the provisions which makes me a little uneasy. We know that it is easier to get elected on a promise to sweep the streets than on a promise to provide more domiciliary care or more services for people with learning difficulties.

I have never heard of a council leader who says that he needs more autonomy, but perhaps a council leader would not dare. I have often heard how the rights of minority councillors are absolutely fundamental to the good working of democracy. An elected mayor is proposed. By what method of election? And if a local authority is to be permitted to experiment with new electoral arrangements for a mayor, then why not for the whole authority and why not other changes such as weekend voting and rolling registers and so on? I dare say we shall be told by the Minister that a White Paper is on the way. I would prefer to see the proposals as a package, for the rather cynical reason that once one has taken a few steps then, human nature being what it is, the pressures of the legislative timetable and so on, we may hear, "we cannot take forward the other elements of the package; local government has had its time in Parliament and we have to move on to other things". For that reason I would much prefer to wait to develop these ideas with others.

Some of the concern about the Bill is due to the very tight way in which some political groups on some authorities are run. One hears examples of a group taking a decision on the basis of its chairman's casting vote, with all the members then obliged to toe the line. I would hate to think that we were in any way helping to reinforce that kind of rigidity. Of course I accept that in reality some committees do rubber-stamp privately-taken decisions; but where the ruling group knows before it goes into a committee what decision it wants and will propose, the opposition has the right and also the responsibility to question what is proposed, to test it and to hold the ruling group to account.

Some authorities are one-party states and some are very nearly so, because of the electoral system. My noble friend Lord Tope and I know that, perhaps to our benefit, from our own authorities. But the changes in administration that are being proposed must have in-built safeguards to ensure that one-party states created by the first-past-the-post system are not turned into impenetrable fiefdoms. We all want to re-invigorate local democracy, but if increasing power to individuals and small groups is to be advanced then it is even more important that those who have supporting roles in those authorities are the more astute and assertive, and have real ability to act as a check and balance.

We talked in the Select Committee about local government having the right to fail. It needs courage to contemplate failure. I would not want to be thought to be arguing against legitimate innovation, and at Committee stage we will endeavour to test whether the structures proposed have adequate safety barriers, so that if there is a right to fail then it is a right to fail but not a likelihood of failure.

8.53 p.m.

Lord Bowness

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Tanworth, for bringing this Bill before the House for its Second Reading. I am certain that the proposals in the Bill will be the subject of great interest within local government. Certainly any proposals which have the potential to raise the profile of local government, to improve its accountability, to increase the interests of the public and their participation in the electoral process are to he welcomed and are certainly worthy of exploration. I have to say at this point, as I have already indicated to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, we on these Benches are somewhat surprised that the Government should be content for these proposals—which are quite far reaching—to be contained in a Private Member's Bill. I hope that since perhaps this follows the invitation offered by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, on 23rd July to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Tanworth, to bring forward a Bill, the Minister when she replies will be able to give us some indication, if it is possible, as to how time is to be found for this Bill, not only in this House but in another place.

Turning to the Bill itself, there we have a variety of options before us. Certainly as a local government member—and I declare my interest to that extent—I accept that committee structures need to be reviewed. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, referred to the ways in which the traditional committee structure can inhibit leadership, innovation and management. I accept the criticisms that he has made but I suggest to him that, as local government is structured today, it is not just a question of changing the system. Back-bench members need, as has already been mentioned, a fulfilling role: but I wonder whether that can actually be achieved for all back-benchers, given the relatively large number of local authority members which we have in authorities in the United Kingdom. That is a matter which I know is controversial and does not necessarily win one any friends among colleagues in local government. It is certainly a matter which if proposals of this kind were to be pursued would also need to be addressed.

My Lords, perhaps I may look at some of the options that are before us in the Bill. The first concerns executive mayors directly elected across the area of the authority. What is proposed is the introduction of an elected executive official: something which, apart from the particular and special proposals for the government for London, is a significant departure for the United Kingdom. That does not mean to say that it is wrong; but it is a new principle which would be established and one which therefore needs particularly careful thought and examination of the potential consequences for establishing that principle.

The second proposal involved delegation, as I read it, to executive councillors, one of whom becomes the indirectly elected executive mayor. These members individually would have executive power but not, under this model, power as a body. Perhaps if we could consider these two models for executive mayors for a moment, I believe, as I said during the debate on the Greater London Authority (Referendum) Bill, we need to give consideration to what effect these proposals would have on the institution of mayoralty as we know it in England and Wales, and which has served local communities and local government well. There is a great public understanding of the role of mayor, far greater than that of the leader of the council—something which, as a former leader, I may regret but which I believe to be true. The mayor, unlike the leader, is welcomed normally throughout his or her authority and generally is a non-political figure, certainly for his or her year of office. He or she acts as an ambassador for the town outside and for the council within the city or the town. When the mayor becomes a political figure, as he or she would under these proposals, all that will change. Incidentally, as the Bill is drafted, if all London boroughs were to avail themselves of the possibility of directly elected mayors, certainly the prospect envisaged by my noble friend Lord Beloff of a mayor on every corner, and certainly in every quarter of Greater London, would come about. That is a detail which we would certainly want to examine. We need to consider the effects of these changes very deeply. A senior local government officer once said to me that the mayoralty was the most popular service that we provide. Therefore we need to be aware of the profound changes that these proposals would bring about.

The third model described to us is the cabinet system—a group of leading members with the personal executive power, including a single-party policy committee with decision-making powers on behalf of the authority. That raises a number of concerns and questions. Would the council as a whole be able to challenge decisions before implementation? As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, scrutiny after the event is a different matter altogether. In those circumstances, is it right for a decision-making body, as opposed to an advisory body, to be single-party and meet in private? I pose that as a question.

The fourth model is the single-party executive committee, comprising members who do not themselves have executive powers but do have such powers when acting together. That raises similar concerns.

The last model, the single-party advisory committee being put in the constitutional framework of the authority, meeting in private and making recommendations to a multi-party body, the council or committee, is perhaps the least radical but certainly raises the least number of questions. It puts on a formal and proper basis the method of working of many local authorities and makes possible what, before changes to legislation, was previously carried on by many different authorities. The changes that were made regarding the admission of the public to meetings certainly prevented what was, in my experience, an efficient way of working. I also suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Tanworth, that the whole question of delegations, particularly to one member, needs close examination.

Politics in local government are a reality. And of course there will always be group meetings. Having been a local authority leader, I well understand the case for the leadership of an authority, however constituted, being able to meet in private, subject to decisions being taken publicly in multi-party forum. A properly constituted committee, the membership of which is known, its meetings a matter of record, is not a secret meeting. I have to lend my support to that because it is the basis on which I gave evidence to the Widdicombe Inquiry, and I am not minded to withdraw that view at this stage.

We all look forward to discussing these matters at later stages of the Bill. In the meantime, I shall be interested to hear from the Minister her reactions to these proposals: whether they are supported in their totality by the Government and—given the significant involvement that the Government may have had in the preparation of the Bill—whether government time will be available throughout the Parliament to see the Bill, if it is the wish of Parliament, enacted.

9.3 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I have something of a sense of déjà vu, having been involved in the discussions referred to in earlier times—in fact, going back so far that I can remember decisions being taken away from chairs of committees on the grounds that it was unsafe to allow them to have powers. I believe the expression is, "What goes round, must come round".

I begin by saying how grateful the Government are that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, has decided to bring forward this Bill. When we last debated the subject in July, my noble friend Lady Hayman, the Minister, said that we wanted to encourage democratic innovations in local government and greater public participation in local government and democracy. She also explained that finding time for legislation is always a challenge, and the Government have not been able to do so this Session. In those circumstances, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, was invited to bring forward legislation enabling authorities to innovate and experiment with different management arrangements. The noble Lord is to be congratulated on taking up the opportunity.

The noble Lord, Lord Bowness, put a question to me on the issue. This is a Private Member's measure and as my noble friend Lady Hayman made clear, the Government intend to give it all the support we can. The noble Lord argued that the Bill should have been a government measure. I make no secret of the fact that, had there been less pressure on our legislative programme this Session, the Government would have put the Bill forward. But the noble Lord will understand the pressures.

In 1993, the then Conservative government accepted the recommendation of the Working Party on the Internal Management of Local Authorities in England that the Secretary of State should be given powers to allow individual authorities to make experimental changes to their internal management arrangements. They were, however, unable to find a suitable legislative opportunity. That is an important feature, and it is why we are so grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for bringing forward this Private Member's measure.

The debate has swung between two aspects. I was interested in the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, which I took to be more in support than not, although I must admit, as a non-Londoner living here while the House is sitting, I was rather frightened of the "push-me, pull-me" creature that he was creating. I shall read very carefully all the supporting background documents to make sure that we are not offering a job-share to people of different parties, which could lead to problems for the capital.

I remind the House that the report of the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, urged the Government to find legislative time as a matter of urgency. In response, the then government, the previous Conservative government, promised to bring forward legislation in the next Parliament. We are now in that next Parliament; however, I believe it will be agreed on all sides of the House that we face even greater legislative pressure than did the previous government. The measure before us is a Bill that would implement the committee's recommendations, and do so at the earliest practical opportunity.

I appreciate that noble Lords who have spoken might have wished to see a much larger measure brought before the House. However, I stress that the nature and history of the Bill—allowing local authorities to experiment in their own political management—makes it particularly apt that it is introduced from the Cross-Benches by the chairman of a Select Committee which unanimously recommended such legislation. Given that it is brought forward in this way, we in all parties can perhaps more readily, collectively, support the Bill—such support being essential if its purpose of inspiring innovation in political management is to be achieved.

There are precedents for Private Members' legislation making important changes to local government legislation. The current provisions on access to information in local government in the Local Government Act 1972 were placed there through a Private Member's measure introduced in another place by Robin Squire and sponsored in this House by the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, raised her concerns and disappointments. We accept that the Bill is a first, albeit significant, step in a programme of democratic innovation. It is a step which local government has been waiting for since 1993. I agree that the Bill needs to be seen in a wider context. That context is that this Government were elected in May to modernise Britain and, as a crucial part of that agenda, local government. Reinvigorated and renewed local government is at the heart of the pledge of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister to modernise our country and bring back government to the people.

We wish to see councils which are modern in their political and organisational management; modern in their political outlook and attitudes; modern in their structures and service delivery; modern in the way they plan and exercise their economic development powers; and modern in their approach to partnership with the private and community sectors.

If enacted, the Bill will be a significant first step towards achieving that vision. As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, explained, his Bill will enable a range of experiments to take place based on four or five main approaches. The legislation would be permissive, setting local authorities free to find better ways of taking decisions which suit them and their local circumstances. I appreciate the history and experience of my noble friend Lord Sefton but say to him that the measure has cross-party support from the Local Government Association representing local authorities in England and Wales.

We are keen for as many authorities as possible to take the opportunity raised within the Bill. Local democracy in this country is weak. Too few vote in local elections, too few are interested in local democracy. That matters. Without effective, democratic and accountable local government we shall not be able to secure the kind of local services people want, the kind of local leadership communities need and the quality of life our citizens rightly expect.

The Bill will, if enacted, enable local authorities to operate new arrangements which make it clearer who is responsible for the decisions which affect local people and which provide a sharper scrutiny of those decisions and the policies which guide them.

Most of the experiments under the Bill will involve the separation of the executive from the representative role and will, to a greater or lesser extent, enhance the representative role of councillors. New ways of working will mean a move away from the "attendance at meetings" culture in some authorities to a stronger representative and challenging function with real responsibilities for councillors.

A very important point is that it could also mean more time for councillors to spend in the local community. The point was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, about different types of councillors, such as those who have full-time employment, and the need for them to have an opportunity to be active in the community role in the area they represent both at residents' meetings and surgeries. It is a role which is seen by the public in all surveys as being particularly important. The role of councillors would be expanded. They would become, in a much clearer way, the advocates of local people, channelling their grievances and demands. That point was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Bowness.

The scrutiny function need not only relate to decisions already taken but could deal with the issue of overall strategy of the executive in determining an area of policy. Back-bench councillors could have in some cases a much enhanced impact on determining the authority's policy.

The Government welcome the opportunity for diversity which the Bill will permit. Those who are concerned about new models say that some of the models could create conflict between the executive and representational roles. New models will ensure that mutual accountability will operate effectively and visibly, for example, through cabinet or lead member systems or a model with an executive mayor. As to the issue of the role of the executive mayor, at this point I have to declare cowardice. My long experience in local government in the north west would lead me away from any temptation to promise to redraw the boundaries of Liverpool. I admit to cowardice on that point.

All these models have their merits and local authorities may come to different conclusions about which models are better than others in specific circumstances. I have no doubt that during the later stages of the passage of the Bill, we shall have further debate on experiences in other countries. I specifically looked at the model of the directly-elected mayor in the City of Baltimore. I was impressed by that role.

As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said, the Bill is permissive. It gives local authorities the opportunity to innovate and experiment with their political and operational management structures. But it is not simply about the adoption of a specific model; the Government feel that the opportunity the Bill offers is important. It is a first step in a process, part of which is making local authorities more responsive to local communities.

In response to points raised by several Members, it is important to stress that local communities may have a part to play in some of the experiments proposed in the Bill. We believe that the potential benefits from taking part in the experiments are so significant that we would wish to see as many authorities as possible, of all types and from all areas, taking part. Indeed, we are pleased that we have already been told by authorities of all types, from London boroughs to shire counties and of all political colours, that they are actively working out proposals for experiment under the legislation. We are clearly of the view that the Bill ought to cover London boroughs along with other principal local authorities. If that means that London boroughs move to an arrangement with an executive mayor—though that is unlikely—so be it.

Each London borough already has a mayor. Under this legislation it would be up to each borough whether it wished to create a mayor with executive responsibility. That is perfectly consistent with our approach to the creation of the strategic London authority where the establishment of the GLA is not intended in any way to diminish the role of the boroughs. It will be a strategic authority which will tackle those of London's problems which require an all-London or multi-body response. The Mayor of London will speak with Londoners. It is clear that mayors of boroughs will speak with their residents also.

My noble friend Lord Bassam, in an outstanding maiden speech, demonstrated how much the House will benefit from his experience and knowledge in future debates, particularly Members such as myself who come from long distances and do not have the most recent local government experience.

The Government will, of course, need to be sure that in each experiment the necessary safeguards for probity and against fraud are put in place as well as arrangements for resolving any conflicts. The Bill envisages that all those issues should be covered in an authority's application to the Secretary of State setting out its proposed experiment. The Secretary of State will issue guidance to authorities about the kinds of safeguards which need to be built into each model permitted by the legislation.

The Government intend to consult widely on this guidance, ensuring that the best advice from academics and the local government world is reflected. It might include guidance on the nature of scrutiny committees, for example, making clear the requirements on political balance and access to information that would be necessary for the proposed arrangements to deliver better local government.

That point was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. I agree with the noble Baroness that openness and rigorous scrutiny are essential to any arrangements for a separate executive created under this legislation. I can assure her that those issues will loom large in any guidance issued to authorities and in the consideration of applications from authorities to experiment under this legislation. We on the Government Benches support that principle, as I imagine does the noble Lord, Lord Hunt.

Before any approval was given, both the Audit Commission and the Local Government Association would be consulted on the proposals. If the proposals are acceptable, the Secretary of State will lay an order giving effect to the proposals for that authority. And as he does so he will ensure that copies of the authority's proposals are placed in the Libraries of Parliament. All Members of this House and of another place will be able to satisfy themselves that for every experiment all necessary steps have been taken to safeguard and encourage proper and effective local government.

To conclude, the Government fully support this Bill and urge this House to do likewise both today and in its future progress through Parliament.

9.19 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Tanworth

My Lords, this has been a very interesting debate. The hour is getting late and I doubt whether noble Lords want a long closing speech from me which would be bound to repeat some of the points the Minister made. However, I should like to make one general point about the philosophy of the Bill. The objective is to allow local authorities as much freedom as possible to experiment with their internal structural arrangements for taking decisions with a view to modernising and bringing out into the open the different roles played by the executive and the legislature and enabling them to be more responsive to local opinion. I do believe, despite what the noble Baroness, Lady Platt, said, that identifying where decisions are taken and where the buck stops provides a link to popular feeling and enables popular feeling to be more clearly and more strongly put over.

However, if one is to go for maximum experimentation it has to he accompanied by safeguards—safeguards for probity, obviously, but also safeguards to protect the rights of minorities. That means that the Bill inevitably contains a good deal of detail, more than some noble Lords would like. It has to contain a good deal of detail because what we are talking about in every case is giving local authorities temporary permission to experiment with things which are at present not legal. Therefore, one has to spell out what previous enactments there will he temporary derogations from in the case of each model.

The Bill has a certain degree of detail which is not particularly attractive at first sight. But it also has running throughout it a balance between giving local authorities as much freedom as possible to experiment while on the other hand preserving the things which we think are essential and for which there have to be safeguards. At the Committee stage there will be an interesting discussion about whether we have that balance right, as I believe we have.

A number of extremely interesting points have been raised on which I should like to ponder. There will be more thinking about the points made here than about mince pies during the Recess. I am grateful for all the contributions to the debate. I ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.

On Question. Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

House adjourned at twenty-three minutes past nine o'clock.