Examination of Witnesses (Questions 405-419)|
THURSDAY 11 JULY 2002
405. Can I apologise that we are running a bit
late and ask you to identify yourselves for the record.
(Ms Kitchin) I am Hilary Kitchin. I am the Secretary
to the Commission on Local Governance.
(Mr Reed) Dennis Reed, Director of the
LGIU, but here on behalf of the Commission on Local Governance.
(Ms Newman) Ines Newman, Head of Policy at LGIU and
here heading the LGI Unit.
(Ms Sillett) I am Janet Sillett and I am the Policy
Officer of the LGI Unit.
406. Is there anything you want to say by way
of introduction or are you happy for us to go straight to questions?
You would like to say a few words?
(Mr Reed) Yes, I would please. Perhaps I can say a
few words on behalf of the Commission and then Ines will say a
few words on behalf of the LGIU, if that is okay. The Commission
which, as you probably know, is an independent body which represents
all political parties and the numerous stakeholders in local government
recently issued its final report. There was general concern from
the evidence that we received that the Government has got the
balance wrong between central initiatives to drive up standards
and increase powers at local level to encourage democratic engagement
and innovation. Somehow we think that the vision has been lost
between the White Paper and the draft Bill. We do believe that
the draft Bill is over-controlling in a number of respects and
is unclear on the freedoms and the flexibilities which were promised.
We think part of the problem or a large part of the problem is
a lack of trust between central and local government. The Commission's
strong case, which formed the bulk of our evidence to you, is
that the European Charter of Local Self-Government should be an
important tool by which to assess both this draft Bill and future
legislation. The European Charter was not covered for some reason
in the original White Paper, but we believe it is far more than
a symbolic international convention; it should be something which
all legislation affecting local government is tested against.
Finally, we make a number of recommendations in the Commission
to try and tackle the issue of democratic engagement, particularly
of young people, in the democratic process and we think that this
is an ideal opportunity for the Government to be addressing that
issue and we are very nervous that the opportunity is being lost
to bring in more radical reforms which might address that issue
of democratic engagement.
(Ms Newman) We have identified our three key points
in paragraph 1.3 of our evidence to you. I would just like to
reaffirm that one of our concerns is that Chapter 5 of the White
Paper, which was on supporting councillors, has not been carried
through in the Bill and there are no real provisions for, in particular,
looking at how more councillors can be encouraged to come forward
and take that office. We are also concerned about the local government
finance regimes which Janet Sillett is here as an expert to talk
to you about and we remain concerned about the new performance
management regime and its integration with trading and charging.
407. To come on to the European Charter of Local
Self-Government to begin with, can you identify one or two of
the clear breaches of that Charter which you think are contained
in the Bill?
(Mr Reed) Yes. We had an independent expert, Jeremy
Smith, who did an analysis for us of the Bill against the Charter
and the current position in local and central government relations
against the Charter. I will deal with three, if I may. The first
is Article 2 of the Charter makes a very clear statement that
the principle of local self-government should be recognised in
domestic legislation. There is no such recognition of the principle
of local self-government in our legislation and we do believe
it would be relatively easy to agree in a preamble to the Bill
a statement about the principles of local and central relations,
so there could be a statement where, for example, it is said that
the Government is entitled to set broad policy of general national
interest which local government undertakes to support, but with
the best possible space, in line with the Charter, for genuine
local policy-making discretion and action. We believe that if
there was such a statement, it would be very useful to judge future
legislation affecting local government against it.
408. The problem is that if I put that to the
Minister this afternoon, he will say that is for review.
(Mr Reed) Well, he may say that, but it is not included
in legislation and we think there is sufficient support across
all political parties for local democracy and it would be relatively
easy to agree such a statement in statute.
409. What would be the purpose of it? A preamble
really is general motherhood and apple pie. Really in British
law sensibly, because we are not taken up by all European nonsense,
preambles really do not have the effect of law.
(Mr Reed) Well, I do not think we should forget the
fact that the Charter was agreed by the Government in 1997 and
ratified by the Government in 1997.
410. So it exists, does it not, so once it exists,
why do you then have to write it into the Act again?
(Mr Reed) Because if you ratify it, you have to follow
the articles within it and it is for those who report to the Council
of Europe to report on the progress made in bringing into legislation
the Charter. That has not been done in this case.
411. That is not going to be met by a preamble.
I am interested in why do you think more words will constrain
a government whom you accuse of not having fulfilled this now?
(Mr Reed) No, I think what we are saying is that the
Government has set objectives which we support, but the way to
actually bring those into being is to make a clear statement about
central and local relationships in the legislation because they
412. What you are doing then is putting shackles
on. If you are enacting European law and enacting a statute in
this country and linking the two inextricably, the relationship
between central and local government, you are effectively shackling
future governments from being able to take decisions about the
relationship they want to have with local government.
(Mr Reed) Well, this is why we are thinking there
should be an agreement between all the parties on such a statement
within the preamble to the Bill. There has been so much concern
around the country about the future of central and local relations,
about how there is a tendency towards over-centralisation particularly
in this draft Bill, about the over-wielding power of inspections
and so on, and we think it is very important that the balance
is changed. This would be not just a symbolic statement, but it
would be a tool with which you could assess future legislation.
413. I think we have got the point and I think
when we interrupted you, you were on three points. I do not think
you have won the Committee on the first one, so let's try the
(Mr Reed) Well, I will have another go at the first
one if you want me to.
414. No, no.
(Mr Reed) On the administrative supervision which
is Article 8 of the Charter, there is a very clear statement about
the need for there to be proportionality between the needs of
central government to set standards, but also local freedoms.
Our expert advice, and I hope the Committee might get some expert
advice on this as well, is that the current inspection regime
breaches that Charter because it is far too controlling in terms
of the minutiae of what is happening at local level. So, as far
as we are concerned, particularly the Comprehensive Performance
Assessment procedure which is currently a matter of considerable
controversy does breach the terms of Article 8 of the Charter.
Now, I do not want you to feel that this is something which is
academic, but it was something which the Government endorsed as
a vital part of the way it looked at central/local relations,
so we have to have regard to the various aspects of the Charter.
415. But surely you amend. If things are not
right, you amend them. You do not say, "What a rotten, filthy
lot. You have not done what I wanted", unless you are particularly
(Mr Reed) What we are saying is that there needs to
be an examination of the current provisions of the inspection
regime to see whether or not it breaches the Charter.
416. We understand that bit. Your third point?
(Mr Reed) The third point is about ring-fencing, Article
9 of the Charter. Our expert advice very much is that the ring-fencing
procedures which are currently in place, and I think the Government
itself recognises and is trying to move away from it, do breach
the provisions which should allow greater local flexibility on
financial matters and a more buoyant regime for local authorities.
417. But in terms of what was said in the White
Paper a few months ago about this change in the relationship between
central and local government, we seem to be back to the Charter
in terms of the words at least and a greater trust of what local
government is doing, and we have not got there. Is that what you
are saying to us? Where does the Bill make any mention that ring-fencing
is going to be reduced?
(Mr Reed) Exactly, yes. What we are basically saying
is that the White Paper set out some very noble objectives about
the future of central/local relations. When you actually look
at the detail in the Charter, if anything, there is more centralisation
suggested through the Comprehensive Performance Assessment regime,
through the provisions which are being suggested around trading
and charging, and it could be seen to be more control than is
currently the case, so we believe that the balance needs to be
shifted the other way. We are examining it against the Charter
because it was the intention of the Government that those objectives
should be achieved.
418. The Charter at the moment has not been
enforced in UK law.
(Mr Reed) It has been ratified.
419. Yes, it has been ratified, but does the
Government have a Treaty-based responsibility to fulfil the terms
of the Charter or is the Charter merely a piece of wallpaper?
(Ms Kitchin) It is one aspect of the UK's international
obligations, as we understand it, having ratified the Charter,
to comply with it and the UK Government is required to make regular
reports on compliance to the Council of Europe. Enquiries can
be made as part of the Council's activities into the application
of the Charter in different countries. Clearly the UK Government
is aware of the issues and I think that the Minister would say
to you that the legislation, the whole framework of local government
legislation, is in compliance with the Charter. What we are saying
is that an international standard is one which should be a measure,
a tool against which legislative programmes are tested.