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We in Ceredigion held a wide-ranging consultation on the cabinet system. Local community councils were dumbfounded and bemused by the way things were going; they did not understand how they would now relate to what they regarded as a local-member-led council. My council might be regarded as extremely old fashioned in that respect, but it achieves the best education results in Wales, so there must be something to be said for the traditional methods of carrying out council business in Wales.
We in Plaid Cymru favour the principle of establishing an executive, but we recognise the need to gain local people's support for any change, especially in rural Wales and other areas. However, so far the Government have singularly failed to persuade the majority of people in Wales and in England that their proposals offer the best local solution.
There is no doubt that people want to have a greater say in how their local government works--they might even want to shape their local government executive. However, the Bill imposes on that executive a shape that fails to give local people--and, in Wales, the National Assembly--a strong enough voice. In Wales, the way forward could legitimately involve the National Assembly to a greater extent. I hope that, in another place and at another time, close scrutiny will be given to this part of the Bill.
There should be an opt-out, perhaps along the lines of new clause 7, whereby, if local people working with the local authority come up with an alternative arrangement, they will be allowed to adopt it as their local government structure. Local government will not succeed without the encouragement and full support of its local community, but there are elements within the proposed structure that fly in the face of that principle.
Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): We are engaged in a century-old debate between centralisers and devolvers about centralisation and decentralisation. In the late 1970s, those working in local government were told by Anthony Crosland that the party was over. Then, we got dragged into the monetarist debate and we were told that part of our public expenditure was causing an economic crisis. The Tories tried to undermine both local government powers over public expenditure through rate capping and local government structures.
During that 20-year period, members of the Labour party worked to develop policies that would reinvigorate local government when a Labour Government were elected. That renewal was to be based on the return of powers and of resources. Then, within months of the general election, the debate was hijacked into discussion of structures: the argument was suddenly about the need for new structures, such as mayors, cabinets and so on. The thrust of our policy had held good for 15 years, and it is true that the current Government are releasing new resources and giving local government new powers; this Bill forms part of that. However, the Bill does not set councils free, but imposes on them a structure that none of them and no single major local government association wants.
Until months before the general election, most of our Front-Bench colleagues rejected the system. We criticised the previous Government's proposals with their mayoral options as ludicrous. However, the pressure from some groups in the Labour party with no experience of local government has led to the potential loss of democratic freedom that we are considering.
I support new clause 7 because it tries to re-establish some form of local freedom. We were told about the advantages of the mayor and cabinet option. We recently had a test of that system in London. It did not increase turnout, which remained roughly the same as for the Greater London council elections. It did not increase effectiveness. I have served in the new structure for the past six weeks and while I do not criticise the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), who has to work with the existing structure, it is not a model of effectiveness and efficiency. It was argued that the system would enhance the quality of the candidates and the elected mayor. It is ironic that, after 18 years, the same person is running London under the new system as under the old system.
The system's drawbacks are clear. It undermines local choice. New clause 7 seeks to re-establish at least the potential for retaining the option of a streamlined committee structure. The Government's proposals have the potential to establish a local oligarchy, which works in secret and is prone to corruption. From the Webbs onwards, the Labour party has argued that the committee structure enabled training in local democracy.
The Government's proposals establish two classes: the deciders and the spectators. We are wishing the parliamentary system on local government. What arrogance. It demonstrates on the part of the Labour party leadership contempt for local government and contempt for local councillors, in the same way as some have contempt for our party and our rank and file activists.
We are throwing away the opportunity of retaining all the options. The Government's proposals do not constitute modernisation, which allows organic growth of democratic systems at local level. They are a step back to a system that has failed elsewhere, and will fail in this country. At the local government conference, the Minister argued that there was a fourth option that would allow the flexibility that local government required and demanded. I ask the Minister to clarify in the brief time available whether the fourth option allows for the streamlined
Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): I follow on from the last point that my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) made. I welcome the proposals in new clause 7, especially the tough tests for which it would provide. I would opt for that, but I would also settle for local government having the right to make the choice if it could pass the tests. I am not sure whether that was the view that the Minister expressed when she addressed the local government conference. She said that a fourth option existed. However, the Bill does not make clear the nature of that option and whether it includes the possibility of a reformed committee system. If not, we are closing down local government rather than opening it up.
I congratulate the Nottingham Evening Post on its responsible campaign in my area against the secret society. It has campaigned to open up local government to proper accountability and for the ability of local people to hold local government to account. If we do that, we have many options for inclusion and local choice, some of which are set out in new clause 7. One area in the county has already begun to follow that path. Newark and Sherwood has set out proposals for broadcasting its council meetings. The public can phone in directly to pose questions during committee meetings.
There are many ways in which to open up local government. I hope that the Minister will clarify whether we will present local people with a revised committee system as one of the options that they can choose for themselves. If we do not, we shall tie ourselves to the presumption that local government cannot lead, but must be led down a path of openness. That is a tragedy. The three options for which the Bill provides will sadly guarantee less openness.
Ms Armstrong: I am sorry that some of my hon. Friends did not attend some of the earlier debates because some interesting ideas have been presented. Much misunderstanding continues to exist; I am sorry about that, and I take some responsibility for it.
In response to the comments of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), I say that we have rehearsed the arguments often. I tell him and some of my hon. Friends that we have not suddenly discovered a problem with the committee system; it was identified by the Maud committee and, in 1993, by a joint Government and local government working party, which included all the local government associations. That joint working party stated:
My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) claims that he is not enjoying the experience of serving in the Greater London Authority cabinet. My hon. Friend is not in the cabinet as an elected Member, but as an adviser and supporter. However, the public have the right to know that he is an adviser and that he is not giving advice secretly or without it being made public. That is a better system than the previous one.
The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) and I share an ambition to find ways in which to reflect the integrity of the aims of accountability, scrutiny and better contact with the public in the broad framework that we are trying to establish in the Bill. We are working in the same way on many matters. However, we are divided on one substantive issue. The new clause proposes that each council should have a separate method of doing things. That would mean that the statute book would have to recognise that, and uphold the individual constitutions of every single authority. That would lead to too much parliamentary interference. The new clause would provide for too much central control rather than the much looser framework that we seek.
I believe that the hon. Member for Bath is not paying sufficient attention to scrutiny and that several executives mean that fewer people are left to scrutinise. That is a key point for local government: there has not been substantial scrutiny in the past. Much greater scrutiny is required. Not only decisions, but their effect on individuals need to be scrutinised. I hope that the House will reject new clause 1 because it will take local government back to the problems that the Maud committee and the local government associations considered: decisions by small, unaccountable cabals. Nobody knew what those cabals were talking about. We are trying to move away from that. I believe that our fourth option will take us in the same direction as the hon. Member for Bath. I hope that hon. Members will reject the amendments.