Previous SectionIndexHome Page

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.

The Liberal Democrats helped the Government out on clause 28, and at the same time they sold out 80 per cent. of local government in this country. It is worth reminding

25 Jul 2000 : Column 1027

the House of the comments of the principal Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), only a couple of months ago in Committee, when he said:

We know that the hon. Gentleman is a Liberal Democrat, but even Liberal Democrats, if only for their own sanity, must be expected to hold the same views for more than a few weeks.

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 sad fact is, however, that the hon. Member for Eastbourne made a large number of comments with which I happen to agree. He and I spent a long time in Committee and we share the clear view that it is totally wrong of central Government to impose on local government how it should organise its decision-making processes. We have consistently made it clear that we are opposed to central Government seeking to do that.

I now come to the decision that we should take, given the position of the Government. [Hon. Members: "Ah."] Conservative Members are concerned about deciding

25 Jul 2000 : Column 1028

what to do. Let me remind them that any crocodile tears that they shed for local government are ill placed in view of their party's clear commitment to get rid of, for example, local education authorities and to remove from local government many of its current powers and thereby, in effect, remove any possibility of it having any power whatever.

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.

11.30 pm

We are debating whether the House should support an amendment moved in the House of Lords by the Liberal Democrats. The amendment will ensure that at least some

25 Jul 2000 : Column 1029

councils are excluded from three proposals that central Government seek to impose on them. The key decision that this House must make is whether to accept that at least some councils--rather than none at all, as the Conservatives would have it--should be given the opportunity to find their own way forward in decision making. The issue is not whether we would tonight persuade the Government to change their view and to drop their imposition of operating methods on all forms of local government, as we would like them to do; it is simply whether all councils in Wales and 82 councils in England will receive the benefit to which I have referred.

Next Section

IndexHome Page