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Local Government Bill

Lords amendments considered.

Clause 24


Lords amendment to Commons amendment No. 10: No. 2, in page 16, line 21, at beginning insert--
("Subject to section (Alternative arrangements in case of certain local authorities),").

11.5 pm

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong): I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 3 to 15 and 17.

Ms Armstrong: This group of amendments increases the choice that local people will have about how their local communities are governed. The amendments are also consistent with the Government's policy of seeking to ensure that each council acts in a manner that demonstrates openness, accountability and efficiency. I am grateful to the Liberal Democrats for the amendments, which will enable small shire districts with a population of 85,000 or fewer to develop their own constitution according to those principles.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): We have already rehearsed quite well the arguments on the Bill. However, the Minister's claim that the amendments increase choice for local government takes the prize for brass-necked effrontery. This has always been the Henry Ford Bill: it offers buyers any colour they want as long as it is black.

Until now, the Bill has presented three options to local councils, but I have yet to find a council that is even remotely interested in the option of a council manager while about 1 per cent. of councils want directly elected mayors. That has left effectively one option for most councils--a cabinet system. More recently, the Government have tried to peddle a bogus fourth option. However, that option still requires an executive system and the Secretary of State's permission, and it applies to categories of council rather than to individual councils.

The official Opposition's attitude to the options has been the same throughout our consideration of the Bill. If the proposals for new local governance are so good and so popular, why not ask people to choose? [Interruption.] If the proposals are so good for local government, why have they been roundly rejected by councils such as Camden and Brighton and--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Conversations are being held on both sides of the House, but hon. Members must listen to the hon. Member who is addressing them.

Mr. Waterson: Why have the proposals been criticised so roundly by so many Labour Back Benchers? Why have they been criticised so effectively and clearly by the Labour Campaign for Open Local Government, which consists of 1,000 members and several hundred Labour

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councillors? [Interruption.] The Minister scoffs whenever I mention those facts. However, every time that we have debated these issues, I have challenged her to tell us who actually wants these changes--other than, I assume, Ministers at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and a few acolytes in the New Local Government Network and in other new Labour- oriented organisations and lobby groups. Who is calling out for the reforms?

The plain fact is that the Minister was slow hand-clapped at the recent Local Government Association conference because, across the board, local government is not keen on these changes to council structures.

The amendments in this group throw a fascinating light on the Government's attitude to local government--as it does on Liberal Democrat Members' attitude to local government.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): Hear, hear.

Mr. Waterson: I shall come to Liberal Democrat Members in a moment. They will have to be patient, but I will come to them, I promise.

The Government's line has consistently been that the committee system is discredited and out of date, and that it does not fit in with modern requirements. They have also taken the line that it is impossible to have proper scrutiny, transparency and openness without a clear executive scrutiny split. Indeed, the Minister even suggested recently that best value could not work effectively without such a split.

Yet lo and behold, on the basis of the amendments cobbled together between the Government and their friends in the Liberal Democrats, more than 20 per cent. of councils around the country are to be excused the new structures. One asks why that might be.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the situation is worse in Wales because not one council will be able to take advantage of the proposal in the new amendment? All the authorities in Wales are unitary, not shire or district authorities, so councils such as my own, which has a small number of residents, will not be able to take advantage of the proposal.

Mr. Waterson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention because it just shows how, in their hurry to fall over themselves to help the Government out again, the Liberal Democrats forgot about Wales. I hope that the voters of Wales will have regard to the hon. Gentleman's intervention.

Ms Armstrong: The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) has obviously not read the Bill. It contains a subsection which makes it clear that the National Assembly for Wales will determine the future of the legislation in relation to Welsh authorities.

Mr. Waterson: Well, we will leave it to the National Assembly for Wales.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): Will my hon. Friend help the House by explaining why it is suitable to exempt some councils, but not to give other councils the

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chance to choose? Why does he suppose that the Minister should try to tell the House that she is extending choice, when all that she is doing is giving a small amount of choice to very small councils?

Mr. Waterson: My right hon. Friend points out accurately that the Minister made no attempt in her perfunctory introduction to explain the logic behind the amendments. The logic is simply that the Government needed the Liberal Democrats' support and, in return for a deal over clause 28, they were prepared to horse-trade--not my word but that used in yesterday's debate by Baroness Hamwee, the Liberal Democrat spokesman in the Lords--to come to a solution. The solution involved the lucky 20-something per cent. of councils. If it is such a great idea, why are the Government still so determined to impose the structures on the other 80 per cent. of councils? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) said, why are they not to be given the same choice as the 20 per cent?

Obviously, the Opposition welcome the timely escape of the 20 per cent. of district councils with a population of fewer than 85,000, but what about all the others? If it is good enough for those in that category, why is it not good enough for all councils? Why the arbitrary figure of 85,000? It has already been suggested in the House of Lords that the measure might be subject to judicial review, but if one out of five councils are to be exempted, why not allow all councils to choose? If the benefits are so obvious, Ministers will be able to demonstrate that many councils will choose to have a cabinet system.

With all due respect to him, the Minister in the other place, Lord Whitty, lost the plot during the debate, but at least he did the courtesy of speaking for rather longer than the Minister for Local Government and the Regions who opened the debate in the House tonight. He said:

He said that the new constitution would give

He castigated the Opposition, saying that what they proposed was

11.15 pm

Lord Whitty continued:

With no logical connection, he explained that those small shire district councils are to be exempted, yet he then spoke of

As the Minister for Local Government and the Regions has constantly told this House that we must have such constitutions to deliver transparency, efficiency and accountability, how will that 20 per cent. of councils manage? Answer comes there none.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Perhaps I can answer my hon. Friend by telling him that it is the minority Labour group on Lichfield district council which

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is so disappointed that Lichfield, which has a population of 92,000, will have this new system imposed on it. Is he aware that not only the Labour minority but the Conservative majority believe that the change will cost more, that it will obscure any transparency and will create a democracy deficit in Lichfield?

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