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Mr. Waterson: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point in his usual fashion. The effect of the Government's proposals has been to break down party political barriers on councils such as Lichfield and to unite the parties against what the Government are trying to do.
My hon. Friend alluded to those councils that are on the limits of the exemption. In the House of Lords, yesterday, Lord Hanningfield drew attention to the plight of councils such as Rushmoor, which is unfortunate enough to have a population of 86,000. Because of that extra 1,000 people, the full Monty will be imposed on Rushmoor by the Government. I have already referred to the possibility of judicial review. There is also the plight of the other 80 per cent. of councils. They will, in effect, have only one option forced on them.
Our objections to the system have been well rehearsed, but it is worth reminding the House of them. There is the element of compulsion, to which we object profoundly and which has caused great resentment in local government. In many cases, a small group of people will take all the decisions. Some councillors will be consigned to the back benches by the proposals. The role of the officers in the new structures has not been thought through. It is difficult to see how effective scrutiny can be undertaken by such councils as the London borough of Newham, which has 59 Labour members and one independent Labour member. Who on that council will carry out convincing and transparent scrutiny?
It is not only the official Opposition or even--until a few days ago--the Liberal Democrats who object to the proposals. A range of organisations in and out of local government, Labour councillors, Labour Back Benchers, academics and others have all raised those concerns over and over again.
Until recently, the Government were not prepared to take notice of any of the provisions, but a problem arose because of their lordships' attitude to the Bill. This is where the Liberal Democrats come into the picture--[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear"]. I said that I would return to them and I always keep my promises. The amendments reveal as much about the Liberal Democrats as they do about the Government.
As I have explained, in yesterday's debate in the House of Lords Baroness Hamwee admitted to horse-trading. Therefore, there is no pretence from anyone involved in this rather shabby little deal of any principle, of any logic; it is simply a matter of political horse-trading. The Government needed the support of the Liberal Democrats in the Lords on clause 28 and on their structures for local government, and the Liberal Democrats extracted a price. [Interruption.] But that shabby deal points a penetrating shaft of light on the Liberal Democrats' real role and purpose in this Parliament and their true relationship with this Labour Government. It strips away any pretence that the Liberal Democrats are a real party of opposition or, indeed, that they are friends of local government.
Linked with the Liberal Democrats' deal over these amendments in the Lords was their policy on clause 28. It is the policy that dare not speak its name, because, as far as the Liberal Democrats are concerned, it takes its place alongside their views on legalising drugs and on a federal Europe--the sort of things that people do not expect to see in their local "Focus" leaflets. They are indeed the stealth party of British politics, because if that shrinking band of people who vote for them knew what they stood for, they would not vote for them.
Our views on the Government's proposals for structures are well known. Our reservations have been set out on Second Reading, in Committee, on Report and in the Lords. We have made clear our view that there should be no compulsion. We have made clear our view that the Government are entirely wrong; they are looking at life down the wrong end of the telescope if they think that tinkering with structures will make any difference to local democracy, and if they believe that more people will turn out and vote, or stand for election, as a result of their fiddling with structures.
I do not intend to invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to divide the House on these amendments. We want at least some councils to benefit from the fourth option, for which we have consistently campaigned. The difference between us and the Government and between us and the Liberal Democrats is that we have always campaigned for that option to be available to all councils, irrespective of size, throughout the country.
Mr. Don Foster: I am delighted to have the great honour to follow the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson). His speech was such that it caused his right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) to leave the Chamber, and, having listened to the hon. Gentleman, there is no doubt whatever that, to use a phrase that has been used once before, I feel that I have been
The Liberal Democrats take a different view. We believe in the importance of strong and vibrant local government. We believe in the importance of local government being given a power of general competence and the ability to carry out all the functions that it believes are in the best interests of the people whom it seeks to serve. It should also have the ability to raise the funds to carry out the activities within the power of general competence. As a result of pressure by Liberal Democrats in Committee, we have achieved that aim in the Bill. Furthermore, as a result of Liberal Democrat pressure, we have persuaded the Government to change their attitude on issues such as whether executives should meet in secret. We have long argued that executives should meet in public and we have now persuaded the Government of that view.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): I was interested to hear the hon. Gentleman say that he is strongly in favour of executives or cabinets meeting in public. Is he therefore criticising Liberal Democrat-controlled North Wiltshire district council, which stubbornly insists on meeting in private?
Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman is well aware of my position on this issue. I have said to him in other circumstances that I believe it is important that local councils--whether they are Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat or under no overall control--hold their council meetings in public. I have made it clear to him, as I repeat to the House as a whole, that if there are examples of Liberal Democrat councils not following the recommendations that we make, I shall certainly take it up with them. However, because we genuinely believe that local government should have the power to make such decisions, the ultimate decision on the matter is one for the local council.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Is the hon. Gentleman not aware that his obsequious collaboration with the Government, as reflected most recently in the proposal before the House, has led to the hissing out of office of the ridiculous Liberal Democrats on Aylesbury Vale district council and the reconquest of that authority by sound and distinguished Conservatives?
Mr. Foster: There will be plenty of opportunity for electors across the country to decide whether they believe it is sensible for a political party to seek to persuade the Government to change their view on particular matters, or whether that party should simply hold a position that will not make a blind bit of difference to what happens in local government.