HL Deb 10 June 1998 vol 590 cc1002-5

2.50 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they welcome the steps that local authorities are taking to encourage greater participation by the public in local government.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, the Government very much welcome the creative and innovative steps taken by many local authorities, including that led by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, to increase public participation in local government. As set out in a recent consultation paper on local democracy and community leadership, the Government want every local authority to be closely in touch with the needs and aspirations of those they serve.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the range of activities undertaken by local authorities last week as part of Local Government Democracy Week? Does she agree that public participation schemes may do much to improve the level of turn-out at local elections?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, the Government are aware of the very wide range of opportunities being taken by local authorities across the country. The week has been immensely successful. We wish publicly to congratulate the Local Government Association for what it has done to underpin the work of individual member authorities.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, does the Minister agree that often it is common sense which dictates people's attitude to the way in which local government performs? If the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, would allow me 10 minutes of his time, I could give him any number of examples of how the population of Brighton is very discontented with its current Labour rulers.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, it would not be reasonable for me to answer for my noble friend as to the amount of time he has available for discussion of the matter. Suffice it to say from my own contact with local government and my experience as a councillor, it is impossible to please all of the people all of the time, as the previous Conservative Government found.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, I welcome the innovative and exciting steps taken by many local authorities which, I agree, have not required any change to the legislative structure. However, do the Government accept the recent findings of a Local Government Association survey which indicated that 36 per cent. of people do not believe that voting in local elections makes any difference to the levels of local taxation or services? Do they further accept that the only way to encourage greater participation in local government is to return real power and financial freedom to our town halls?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, it is precisely because of the Government's concern about the pattern of treatment of local government they inherited—matters had reached an all-time low ebb—that they initiated wide-ranging consultations on the role of local government and the powers necessary to local government to enable it to meet the wishes of the people it represents.

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, how do the Government view the introduction of an executive mayor and cabinet-style government in Hammersmith and Fulham? When considering the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, they appeared to accept that legislative changes were needed before such a system could be introduced.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, the Government welcome the developments in Hammersmith and Fulham. We welcome the fact that many local authorities are developing innovative management structures and seeking to change the way they work without legislation. However, legislation is necessary. Hammersmith and Fulham is going as far as it believes it can within the current legislative framework to adopt a modern decision-making structure and policy. It is essential that the opportunity is provided as soon as possible to broaden the scope of those decisions.

The Lord Bishop of Durham

My Lords, will the Minister assure the House that it is still part of government policy to encourage democratic participation through the development of regional assemblies?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I assume that the right reverend Prelate refers to the issue of assemblies in the English regions. It is government policy to move initially through regional development agencies and then towards directly elected regional assemblies as it is demonstrated that the people in those regions desire them.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, in view of her welcome for the new pay structure for the leader of Hammersmith council, is the Minister saying that she would like to see all authorities move towards a situation in which there is a well-paid elected executive instead of the system that has existed for so long?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, to my knowledge it has been recognised since 1991 at government level that different models may be more appropriate for different authorities depending on the circumstances of those elected. A pattern which allowed a split in terms of an executive role, with a smaller number of full-time councillors, would permit the election of other people with fewer demands on their time during the day. They would be able to represent their communities in a different way. That could be a very good model for encouraging more women to become active in local government.

Earl Russell

My Lords, further to the question put by my noble friend Lady Hamwee, does the Minister agree that, pending the abolition of capping, central government limits leave local authorities no more control over their spending than Conservative spending limits leave this Government over their spending?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, it is because of the concerns we have that we have undertaken consultation on good financial management and arrangements between central and local government. I shall not trespass on national Treasury questions in the context in which the noble Lord invites me.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the trend over 50 years of diminishing electoral interest in local government is almost precisely reciprocated by a trend in the opposite direction of increasing moneys coming from central government so that there is less and less of a direct relationship between a local councillor and the taxes he raises? Does she agree that that is a deep, indeed fundamental, problem? I am aware that the Government are examining the question of capping in a marginal way. However, is there any strategic ambition to do anything about that fundamental problem?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I congratulate and compliment the noble Lord. I am aware of the many hours, indeed years, of his time that he has personally devoted to local government. It is precisely because of those concerns that the consultation on the future financing of local government is taking place. An evaluation will be made by the Government at the end of the consultation process.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, can the noble Baroness reconcile the answers given so far about power being in the hands of local government and the creation of organisational committees and an adjudicator as set out in the School Standards and Framework Bill?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

Yes, my Lords. As the noble Baroness is aware, the heresy—

Noble Lords


Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

Inheritance, my Lords. The inheritance and legacy of the present Government from the government of the noble Baroness was a fragmentation of the education service. The purpose of the proposals for the new committees is to bring together at local level all partners in providing education for children in that locality. My experience in Lancashire leads me to believe that the local partners will wish to work well together in the way suggested in the government proposals.