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Mr. Waterson: Before the hon. Gentleman gets too carried away with that line of argument, I would point out that I was not necessarily suggesting LGA support for the precise wording of our new clause; but it is clear that the Government have still failed to persuade the LGA or any significant local government body that their so-called fourth option is really anything of the sort.
Mr. Foster: I entirely agree. The hon. Gentleman and I are at one in believing that the Government are wrong to impose on all councils three options that, in the main, have very similar features anyway. Both he and I believe that local authorities should be given much greater freedom to decide how they are to operate. Nevertheless, we have a different approach to how that should be achieved.
I end by suggesting to the Minister that there are many rumours, as there always are, about the Government's proposals. There is undoubtedly one category or group of councils that the Government's proposals fit least easily--the shire district councils, those particularly small councils with relatively limited powers. The rumour is that the Government may at least allow them to opt out from having the three models imposed on them. I should welcome hearing from the Government whether the rumour is true. If it is not, it should be.
Mr. Llew Smith: I shall speak briefly in support of new clause 7. In doing so, I know that I have the support of not only my constituency Labour party but the Labour council. Unlike Camden, it had no abstainers, I am pleased to say. There was total opposition to the cabinet system and the mayoral system from the Labour group in Blaenau Gwent.
However, I disagree with the Conservative Front-Bench spokesperson's explanation of why so many local authorities have already brought the cabinet system into being. He said that it was because they welcomed secrecy. I do not think that that is so. Most have introduced it not because they support it, but because they see a degree of inevitability about the whole process.
When the Government came to power, they told us that they were committed to devolving power. We all welcomed that. The Government will argue that acts of devolution were the setting up of the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. Some of us in the House did not think that that had anything to do with devolution, but a great deal to do with nationalism. However, if we take the Government at their word, and accept that the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament were created as acts of devolution, it is sad that they have not applied the same logic to local government.
With both the mayoral system and the cabinet system, the Government are not devolving power but centralising it in the hands of the mayor or the cabinet. My local authority, my constituency party and I find that politically unacceptable. We also find it sad, because we regard local government as probably the most democratic arm of government and, indeed, of the United Kingdom state.
Putting power in the hands of the mayor has nothing to do with devolving power; it is centralising power in the hands of one person. Unless his or her agreement can be obtained, the things that one wants for one's community will not happen, because that one person will not accept them. If in place of the mayoral system we have the cabinet system, instead of one person taking the decisions 10 people will take them. Once again, that is unacceptable, because those who are not in the cabinet are not part of the decision-making process and cannot reflect the aspirations of the community that they represent. They cannot have a say in making policy for that community.
Mr. Simon Thomas: I understood the hon. Gentleman to say, looking at local government in Wales, that the cabinet system in local government was unacceptable per se. Will he confirm that that is what he was saying?
Mr. Smith: I am saying that I, my constituency party and the Labour group on the council unanimously oppose the cabinet system and the mayoral system because we are committed to devolution. We believe that the proposed system has nothing to do with devolution, but that it has a lot to do with centralisation, to which we are opposed.
I know that some will pray in aid scrutiny committees. We welcome those bodies, but we know that their creation has nothing to do with devolving power. Those who are not members of the cabinet will have no say in decisions, and the job of those who are members of the scrutiny committee will be merely to scrutinise. I see little role for councillors who are not members of the cabinet--many of them will be able to go home because they will have no say in the decisions that affect their communities. That is sad. We will have lost an opportunity to devolve power and to make councillors more accountable to the communities they represent, and we will have made it more difficult for the electorate to perceive the relevance of councillors and to exert some control over them.
For those and many other reasons, my position, that of my constituency Labour party and that of the Labour group on the council is one of opposition to both the cabinet system and the mayoral system, but of support for the committee system. Local government is probably the most democratic arm of the British state.
None the less, I fear over-centralisation in local government. I believe that local government is truly devolutionist in that decisions are made at local level. I have serious doubts about the Government's current approach to local government--the imposition of a rigid template, a one-size-fits-all executive structure that local authorities must adopt. On those grounds, both Opposition new clauses--especially the Liberal Democrats' new clause 7--have much to recommend them.
I should have liked to avail myself of the Back-Bench privileges that were much discussed during the hour-long debate on the guillotine motion, but I was taken ill with food poisoning and thus prevented from tabling my own amendment, which would have cast the National Assembly for Wales in a central role. New clause 7 offers a way forward: at least in Wales, the Assembly could be the body that considers different arrangements and, in consultation with local authorities and local people and with the support of local people, enables a committee system to continue in Blaenau Gwent, for example, while a cabinet system is adopted elsewhere.
Let me set out some of the difficulties peculiar to Wales and the reasons why the one-size-fits-all approach will not necessarily work. For a start, there are the unitary authority areas, especially the large rural areas such as Powys, which has already been mentioned. There is the somewhat anomalous position whereby two of our unitary authorities--Powys and Gwynedd--have area committees. Where does an area committee fit into a cabinet system? That has not been addressed.
We in Wales have independent councillors--I should say that they are not crusty old Tory councillors. Independent councillors in Wales are curious beasts: many are members of Plaid Cymru or the Liberal Democrats, and one or two might even be members of the Labour party; however, the majority who stand as independents do so in rural areas because they are, in effect, the voice of the local community, often closely allied with farming interests. We have found that independent councillors fit ill into the cabinet system that has just been set up in my area.
We in Wales have limited options. Whatever happened in London, the mayoral option was ruled out for Wales when Russell Goodway adopted his course of action in Cardiff. The role of executive manager has never been tried in Wales and has no track record, so I doubt that any local authority will opt to have such a beast.
Mr. Livsey: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the cabinet system will wholly exclude people living in the vast rural areas of Wales that we represent, which will be wholly excluded from the decision-making process?