Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley): My hon. Friend understates the case. Most of the local authority members to whom I have spoken are actively opposed to the proposal. They opposed it because they do not like corruption, they want democracy and openness, and they see it as an opportunity for people who want to bring in corruption, to wipe out democracy, to stop the press seeing, and to bring in secrecy and control. Local government has had a small smattering of corruption, in percentage terms. The proposed system will allow more corruption and less detection.

Mr. Waterson: My hon. Friend speaks from great experience.

I shall summarise our main objections. The first is that no one seems to want the wonderful new structures, so why do Ministers not leave the matter up to local councillors? There is an element of compulsion. That is the thrust of our amendments. Secondly, why does the Minister insist on damning the entire committee system, which has served many councils well over a number of years? Why does she persist in speaking about an old-fashioned committee system, rather than the streamlined committee system that many councils operate?

Thirdly, has the Minister made any attempt to estimate the total cost of the changes across local government? We know, for example, that Durham city council has budgeted £300,000 towards the cost of establishing a cabinet structure. Not a penny of that will make life any better or easier for the residents and council taxpayers.

Fourthly, and most of all, we do not want a two-tier system for local councillors. All councillors should have equal worth. The concept of back-bench councillors should be anathema in local government. We believe that small groups of people making all the decisions is bad for local government, and that a massive split between executive and scrutiny is bad news for those who do not happen to be on the executive.

For all those reasons, it is essential that the House, or failing that, the other place, writes into the Bill the clear right of councillors to choose another option if that is what they wish--not the bogus fourth option that the Minister has been peddling unsuccessfully, but a real, red-blooded fourth option.

I shall touch briefly on amendment No. 214, which would delete clause 23. We do not know why the Government are so set against political balance applying to cabinets. It works very well in places such as Conservative-run Bedfordshire. However, it has been grabbed with alacrity by some old Labour councillors, and at least 60 per cent. of existing cabinets are one-party cabinets, many of which meet in secret.

Finally, amendment No. 21 would delete clause 28(3). We call this the "abandon all hope, you who enter" provision, because, once a council has moved to an executive system, there is no way of going back to the previous system. That is harmful and unnecessary. It chimes with the general air of compulsion that surrounds the Government's attitude to local government structures.

4 Jul 2000 : Column 222

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley): I shall speak briefly about the argument for opening up local government to the people and the press. We have a cabinet system in my constituency which I am told is working well, although some back-bench councillors do not have the power that they would like. I suppose that that will come with time, as the scrutiny committees get down to their work.

The cabinet minutes go out to all the councillors and the press, and anyone can attend cabinet meetings--the press, the public and local councillors who are not members of the cabinet. This week, copies of the agenda went out, and one of the items on the agenda was a matter on which the council must decide what it will do next year. I understand there are to be substantial cuts next year in Blyth Valley, due to shortage of money. Some of the suggested cuts for the cabinet to discuss involved leisure centres and other amenities.

The paper was supposed to be private and confidential and councillors were asked to keep it to themselves, because it had not yet been discussed with the work force. Unfortunately, as it went out to all the councillors, the local press--the Newcastle edition of The Journal--got a copy, and printed it this morning. The trade unions and the work force were at the door of the council, demanding to know what was going to happen. Of course, the matter has not yet been discussed. That is the role of the cabinet--to discuss such matters, then go to the work force and tell them.

That example shows that openness goes two ways. Openness is right and I believe in it. My council has done right by being open, but the press showed disregard for an item in a cabinet paper that should have remained confidential until it had been discussed. I do not know what we can do about the matter but, after today's furore, I believe that it should be raised on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Don Foster: During the 18 years of Conservative Governments, both as a local councillor and then with the opportunity provided to me as a Member of the House, I railed strongly against the centralising tendency of those Governments. I suspect that many Members of Parliament and many members of the public looked forward to a new dawn for local government, following the election in 1997. Unfortunately, in respect of centralisation, the sun has yet to rise.

From various measures, it is clear that the Government continue to be a centralising Government. That is best demonstrated by their insistence on imposing on all local councils a requirement to change their decision-making arrangements to one of three models selected by the Government.

In response to that challenge from the Government, different proposals have been made from the those on the Conservative Benches and our Benches. I shall speak predominantly to new clause 7, which is an entirely different response from that offered by those on the Conservative Front Bench, and I hope, therefore, that it will be possible to have a separate vote on new clause 7.

It was a great privilege to represent my party in the House on education and employment matters for quite some time. I vividly recall the challenge made by the current Secretary of State to all of us to deal with standards, not structures, in education. That phrase applies equally to local government. We are all concerned about

4 Jul 2000 : Column 223

the lack of public interest in local government, and we all want to find ways of involving the public more. The solution lies not in structural changes, but in giving local councils greater opportunity to do the things that are most likely to benefit local communities, and to have a voting system that would enable people to feel that when they voted, they could truly make a difference.

That is not the Government's approach. They have decided that three options are to be foisted on local councils. I am the first to acknowledge that the Government have been prepared to make some concessions, following our deliberations in Committee. There is now greater flexibility in those three options, but all three of them and any of the flexibility that is offered still require the fundamental model of a single executive.

It is vital that a genuine alternative approach also be offered to local councils. However, I do not take the Conservative Front-Bench view that the fourth option should be merely the status quo--indeed, without even any possible checks with the local community as to whether it supports the continuation of the status quo. I tabled new clause 7 because I believe it is important that whatever option a local council brings forward in the current climate should be tested for local public support.

7 pm

The new clause would provide the opportunity for an individual council to make its own proposals, different from the three that the Government insist on, but with certain caveats. First, it must ensure that the proposed arrangements would make the council's decisions efficient, open and accountable. Secondly, the new clause would require that as part of the package there should be effective means of scrutinising council decisions. Thirdly, it would require that the proposal be demonstrated to have wide-scale popular support.

In the form of those three provisions, and also the provision that the proposal be presented to the Secretary of State for approval, the Government are given a genuinely acceptable fourth option meeting all their requirements--the inclusion of scrutiny, efficiency, effectiveness, openness and accountability, the Secretary of State's having the last word, and a requirement that the public demonstrate their support for the model. We have even gone further and made it a requirement that the council making such a proposition shall have to demonstrate why its proposals will be better than those made by the Government.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire): To reinforce what my hon. Friend says, in the part of Wales that I come from, the county of Powys, which has an excellent formula for the administration of local government, is 120 miles long. The cabinet system is not appropriate there. In terms of distance, it is the equivalent of Bristol controlling what goes on in London. We must have flexibility of the kind to which my hon. Friend refers.

Mr. Foster: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He strengthens my argument by making the simple point that no two councils are the same. There are about 450 councils in the land. What will best suit one council

4 Jul 2000 : Column 224

may not best suit another. Even the requirement that there be an executive or cabinet may not suit all councils. Therefore, we suggest a way of moving forward that meets many of the Government's concerns. The new clause does not merely say that the status quo can continue willy-nilly. Even if a council like my hon. Friend's wishes to continue the status quo, as it may well do, it will be required to demonstrate that it has popular support.

Of course, Conservative Front Benchers are perfectly entitled to propose the status quo as their way forward, but it was rather rich of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) to pray in aid the briefing document from the Local Government Association and to read out various sections, without giving a full reading. To put the record straight, I should also read out what the LGA says in its document sent to all of us. It said:

It is wrong for the hon. Gentleman to pray in aid the LGA for his new clause, when it is absolutely clear that the LGA is not supporting it. Having read all the LGA document very carefully, I suspect that I could with integrity pray it in aid to support new clause 7.

Next Section

IndexHome Page