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Mr. Dalyell: The hon. Gentleman's remarks reveal that he believes that a Scottish Parliament will inevitably intrude and meddle more and more in local government.

Mr. Wallace: I have that suspicion, which is shared by many people in local government. I would want strongly to resist that trend. Devolution should not stop at Edinburgh. Where we can devolve more power to local authorities, we ought to do so, but that must mean that local authorities are established on a sound financial footing and on a proper democratic and accountable basis.

Local government is the level at which most ordinary citizens have the opportunity to participate or influence decisions that affect their community. It is important that local government in Scotland is robust, democratic and accountable. There are many question marks hanging over local government at present, and some of the ideas that Liberal Democrats are putting forward would go a long way toward ensuring a regeneration of local democracy in Scotland.

8.20 pm

Ms Sandra Osborne (Ayr): I speak from the perspective of someone who, until very recently, was a local councillor in South Ayrshire and who suffered the stresses and strains of local government reorganisation. Local government in Scotland cannot be discussed outwith that context or the culture of compulsory competitive tendering, which has existed for several years, and the constant attacks from previous Conservative Governments over 18 years.

I am proud to have been a member of Kyle and Carrick district council and of South Ayrshire council. However, like many current councillors, I have recently felt exasperated, disappointed and stunned at the way in which local government and public service are brought into disrepute. I very much welcome the swift action that the Secretary of State has taken to investigate outstanding matters.

I cannot remember a time in the past decade when local government was not in crisis, and the sustained attack over 18 years by previous Tory Governments is the root cause of that continuing crisis. I make no excuse, because there is none, for any failure to ensure that all duties are performed in compliance with the highest standards of probity and integrity. However, the Government have taken swift and immediate action to deal with problems and the Secretary of State has given an assurance this evening that he will not hesitate to use his powers, should that be appropriate, when the investigations are complete.

Not for the first time, I have had cause to reflect and compare local government with activities in the House. Was the same swift action taken in the past to consider standards in public life as they affect the House, or was there considerable resistance to increasing public accountability through the disclosure of information on Members' financial affairs and activities? Members who have been here somewhat longer than I have may be able to answer that question. How many drinks on the house and free lunches do hon. Members obtain? Obviously, I accept that public servants, nationally or locally, should

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behave appropriately, and I very much reject the macho bullying that has been reported in the press. However, machismo is the same whether it comes from the upper class or from the working class.

In the Scottish Grand Committee earlier today, I heard described a scenario of local government out of touch with local communities. As a former local councillor, I do not recognise that scenario. Nor do I recognise the claim that local councils do not want to relinquish power to local communities. First, I take issue with that, because it is a sweeping generalisation. As a former community worker with Strathclyde regional council, I am well aware of the efforts made in the past to empower communities, particularly in the poorest areas. I am aware also of the work of voluntary organisations, funded by councils, to support voluntary provision of services and policy development. That wealth of experience is now being utilised under the new deal and policies on social exclusion.

As a local councillor, I spent many evenings attending community groups in my council ward and initiating new groups to assist me in securing resources to meet the needs of my area. I was by no means unique. I know that many councillors work in a similar manner, which is why they have retained the trust of the people who elected them. Over the years, I have received much advice, wisdom and experience from many of the older generation of councillors, some of whom, sadly, are no longer with us. It grieves me a great deal to think that such sterling public service could be undermined in any way.

One of the main problems that we face today is that many younger people gave up their involvement in local councils in the face of an increasingly centralised Government. People feel that local government has lost its influence; it has the power to raise only 15 per cent. of its revenue. The constant battleground that has existed for years between central and local government has taken its toll. Local government services became a political hot potato instead of a focus for community leadership, which they should be. Councillors and officials became more and more pressurised--but from an ideological onslaught, not from a genuine attempt to consider how councils could retain the important role of sustaining community pride and citizenship.

The new Government are pointing the way ahead with partnerships that will give local government influence again--in particular, a partnership between the Scottish Parliament and Scottish local government. I agree with the comments of the hon. and learned Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) about increasing the powers of local government. Local government will in future reflect the wishes of the Scottish people, not impose Tory policies that nobody in Scotland wants, as happened in the past 18 years. I should like there to be a more constructive approach and wider involvement in politics at all levels. I have raised that matter in the House in relation to the Scottish Parliament, much to the disgust of some Conservative Members.

It is my experience that, given the chance, most local councillors want to do what is best for the local community, regardless of their political affiliation. I have represented an area that has traditionally switched between Conservative and Labour support. I say with all

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sincerity that, in my experience, councillors from all parties are very committed to the electorate whom they serve.

I welcome the radical proposals from the Commission on Local Government and the Scottish Parliament, which have been put out to consultation, to look at various voting systems and to consider how a wider range of people can become involved as councillors, including, of course, how more women can become involved.

One of the major problems in recent years came with local government reorganisation. Many very experienced staff were lost to early retirement. There was chaos in the disaggregation process. Many of the new council areas are far too small to deal effectively with the strategic issues for which they are responsible. As I understand it, the decentralisation plans that all the new unitary authorities were asked to produce have sat on a shelf in the Scottish Office because they did not fit in with the Tories' plans and were only a paper exercise in the first place.

In spite of all that, I can certainly vouch for the fact that in my area an incredible effort was made by councillors and officials to make the new unitary authorities work despite the difficulties. In South Ayrshire, a lean management structure was put in place and council departments such as housing and social work, and education and leisure were merged. Genuine attempts have been made to provide greater input by community councils, and a citizens' jury has been set up to examine council policy and debt.

It is laudable to talk about empowering local communities, but those who have been involved, over the years, in making painful decisions know that with power comes responsibility. Democratic accountability is also a factor. If we are to involve local people in decision making, we must ensure that they have more than just a nodding acquaintance with all the facts.

The citizens' jury is an interesting example. It recently began to examine the issue of drinking in public places. At first, the majority of the citizens' jury in South Ayrshire were in favour of a ban. However, after consideration and a realisation that many complex issues were involved, the jury has thought again and decided that a more in-depth inquiry is needed. That realisation quickly dawns on anyone who is involved in the privilege of representing others and exercising powers within constraints, only some of which are financial.

I am very much in favour of widening involvement, and I am fearful of too much work--never mind too much power--being placed on the shoulders of one person. For that reason, I would be reticent about Cabinet-style local government. Councillors should be enabling, but not in the Tory definition of enabling, which meant washing one's hands of responsibility. The leader of East Ayrshire council has said that he will accept responsibility if the investigation shows any lack of responsible action and places it at his door. I commend him for that responsible attitude.

I have every faith that the Secretary of State will ensure that any current difficulties are dealt with in no uncertain manner. The Labour party has an agenda for local government's future; I should like to hear more from

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Opposition parties about that future. None of the Conservative Members present has any experience whatever--


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