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The Electoral Reform Society believes that the Bill represents a missed opportunity to reinvigorate local democracy in England and Wales. Amongst the numerous reforms proposed in the Bill, a glaring omission is any reference to reform of the electoral system by which councillors are elected.
The third missing element is the creation of a self-sufficient local democratic system that is self-reliant, with the strength to deliver services for local communities. To do that, those involved need resources, including financial resources. We need the uniform business rate to return to local council control. We need the abolition of council tax and the introduction of a local income tax. We need a reform of the grants systemin particular, an end to the huge civilisation of ring-fenced grants and bids, which takes up so much of the time of local government and its officersand a much fairer and more objective system of allocating grants.
Those seem to be the key missing elements, but what about the things that are in the Bill? I shall mention a few of them; there is plenty to choose from in 176 clauses. I shall start with the internal governance of local authorities. On Friday last, the Secretary of State made a written statement about the future governance of Stoke-on-Trent council. Indeed, she referred to it in her speech, and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley) made an intervention. The Secretary of State said in her speech that she wanted to give councils flexibility, and to see them experimenting and doing all sorts of exciting things. I shall quote from her statement of last Friday, which encapsulates in two sentences what is wrong with the Governments approach to these matters.
For this reason Government will not be prescriptive as to which model should be used. However, the status quo is not an option.[ Official Report, 19 January 2007; Vol. 455, c. 47WS.]
Joan Walley: I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman agrees that the position in Stoke-on-Trent is unique, because it is the only local authority in the country where we have a council manager and an elected mayor, who together comprise the executive. That has caused us local governance problems there. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is vital that the Government and the Minister for Local Government work with those democratically elected in Stoke-on-Trent and with local MPs to find a way forward for governance that best suits our wonderful city?
Andrew Stunell: I certainly understand the point that the hon. Lady makes, but the model that Stoke has was set up by statuteby the Secretary of States predecessorand it is a harsh judgment by the Secretary of State on her predecessor that she is now going to abolish the only working model. Whatever the merits of the case in Stoke-on-TrentI do not want to intrude on the hon. Ladys private griefif local government had restored to it the right of self-determination on its internal governance, that would not be an issue for her or the House.
The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because it gives me the opportunity to reassure him on two points. First, regarding the status quo that has been referred to, that inclusion was there at the request of the leadership of Stoke, on a non-partisan basis. Secondly, the office was created in Stoke by a referendum and can be taken away only by means of a referendum. The statement refers to the post-2009 situation, and will be based on the views of the people of the wonderful city of Stoke-on-Trent.
I am grateful for what the Minister has said, but I am sure that he will agree that with
regard to the governance of all local authorities, the Bill says that they have to conform to one of the three new models, and if they do not happen to do so already, the status quo is not an option. There is no question of that situation being endorsed by a referendum before things are imposed by the Secretary of State. The point that the Liberal Democrats want to make is: why is it for the Government to intervene in the internal governance of local authorities? If there were any evidence at all that the performance of local authorities is adversely affected by one or other of the governance systems that are in place, perhaps the Government would have a case. I had a talk with a number of local government consultants who give advice on these matters, and their view was that the best that could be said of the Governments proposals is that they will not make the situation worse. There is no question of their leading to an improvement. There is no possible way in which that could be measured.
Let us consider the models and look at the changes that the Secretary of State proposes to make to how mayors will come into existence in future. I was interested in what the Minister just said: in Stoke-on-Trent the system could not be changed because it was put in place by a referendum and another referendum is necessary to get rid of it. That is all very good, but what about mayors? There have been 32 referendums on the establishment of mayors, and in 20 cases voters have opposed the creation of mayors. That is two to one against mayors. There are 12 mayors in place, and without doubt some of them do excellent work. There are some good models, and some of them are doing better than their predecessor councils were. Obviously, I want to draw the Houses attention to the mayor of Watford in that context. However, the House also needs to understand that in four of the 12 cases there are active campaigns to get rid of mayors, because they are not seen as effective models at the local level.
The Governments solution is, Lets take out the public participation in that decision. Lets have mayors established not by popular preference but on the say-so of a council. It is not altogether surprising that the leaders of councils tend to be in favour of strong entrenched leadership. One does not have to be a rocket scientist to see why that might be so. When we consult leaders, funnily enough they are in favour of strong entrenched leadership. The question is: is that model good for local democracy, does it improve the delivery of services, and does it give good value for money? The answer is that there is no evidence at all to show that that is so.
The proposal to have entrenched leaders, as opposed to mayors, seems to have been drawn up by somebody who had no knowledge whatsoever of local democracy. I was sorry for the Secretary of State, who had to respond to a string of questions on that point. She represents a constituency in which, for a period, no political party had overall control of the local authority. One third of all local authorities are in that position, and it is difficult to understand why she imagines that the strong leader model would be right for a council in which no party had overall control, or how a council with such a governance system would manage if it entered a period in which no party had overall control.
Whoever worked out the proposal had evidently not looked at the statistics, because in half of the remaining local authoritiesthe two thirds in which there is a party with majority controlthe leaders average term of office is less than four years. What exactly is the model intended to deliver, and how will it do it? I have already commented on the difficulty that there will be for cabinets and cabinet slates; a whole set of issues will have to be explored. I point out in passing that it is a good job for the Scottish Parliament and Executive that the Bill was not in force earlier. Otherwise the past eight years would have been very difficult in Scotland, where there is a multi-party Executive.
I heard the Secretary of State say that one of the reasons for going down the route proposed is that she will give enhanced powers to local government, which would therefore need strong, effective, centralised leadership to deliver results. That is fine, except for the fact that in the first half of the 20th century there was committee government even in the largest cities, and the committees dealt with public transport, and public utilities such as gas, sewage treatment and electricity. There was nothing that they did not do, and on the whole, they were leaders in those spheres. A lot has changed since then, but the idea that there could be no consensus if work was done by committees, whether multi-party or dominated by one party, and the idea that those committees could not deliver effective decisions, are not based on any proper historical analysis. We have severe concerns about the Bills proposed changes to governance, and we simply assert that it is for local government to determine how it should govern itself. We have allowed that for the colonies, so it does not seem excessive to allow it for local government.
On a much smaller and entirely different issue, the Bill includes provisions relating to the powers of the Audit Commission. At the moment, the commission not only does work commissioned by the Government in respect of local authorities, but carries out work commissioned by local authorities on their own behalf, so that, for example, an authority can find out whether its social services department is delivering. The Bill proposes to remove the right of the Audit Commission to accept such work. Just when huge numbers of local area agreements are about to come into force, when there is to be much more co-operative and partnership working, and when issues of value for money and sensible organisation between several tiers of local authorities and public bodies are more important than ever, the Government are including a provision to prevent the Audit Commission from accepting a commission from bodies that want to look into how they provide services.
I cannot imagine why that decision has been taken, but I shall be interested to learn the reason in Committee. A cynic might think that it has been done so that PricewaterhouseCoopers and KPMG can be taken on as consultants, at three times the price and half the credibility. [Interruption.] If the Minister for Local Government wants to tell me, either now or in Committee, why he thinks that is not true, I will listen, but the fact is that he is taking away that right of the Audit Commission, to the disadvantage of value for money, local government and the commission itself.
The Secretary of State was quietwhether from embarrassment or not, I do not knowabout national health service reform. Reform ought to be in inverted commas, and we ought to add, and underline, the word again. There are district nurses in my constituency who have had three different employers in three successive years, as trusts were moved around. Whether the policy of patient and public involvement in health has been in place for four years, two years or one year, the Government are now tearing up a system that they assured the House was the correct response to getting rid of community health councils.
The loss of community health councils is lamented by all, except NHS administrators, whose subsequent record of control and management has, of course, caused the Government to tear their hair out. When CHCs were abolished and PPIH introduced, individual complaints were siphoned off and given to the NHS, which thus acted as judge and jury on complaints made against it. Whatever the merits of PPIH, the system is far weaker and more fragmented than it was under CHCs.
Now PPIH is to be abolished. Hon. Members will have received copies of correspondence in which the first letter says, Dear PPIH member, thank you for all your help. Your job is now over. The second letter, however, says, Whoops, we acted a bit too quickly. Please stay on for a bit until we pass the legislation. Clause 162 proposes to abolish the Commission for Patient and Public Involvement in Health. Despite the fact that it has reduced powers compared with CHCs, and it is very much a creature of the system, it still has the capacity to bite, because it said of the Bills provisions:
The Government has yet to report on the resources that will be available to local authorities to support LINks, and the formula to be used to distribute funding. When legislating in 2002 to establish PPI Forums and the CPPIH, Parliament also had no information about the intended budget and consequently many of the intentions of that legislation were unachievable due to funding restrictions applied later.
The Commission itself says that it could not do the job that it was set up to do by Parliament, because the Government shrank its funding and kept it under strict control. As hon. Members have said, only primary care trusts are required to co-operate with the new system, not provider trusts or, in Stockport, the foundation trust that has just decided that it will no longer meet in public. I tabled a parliamentary question about that, and the answer that I got back was, Thats okayits up to them. Not only are some important elements of the national health service omitted from the Bill, but those that are omitted are the ones that are doing their best to get under cover and avoid public inspection.
I understood that the code of practice for the Standards Board was to be put into the public domain today, before our debate, but evidently that did not happen. That code will be crucial in determining whether reform of the Standards Board will be workable and effective for local government. I make no bones about it: we think that the board should be abolishedbut if it is to be reformed, that reform must be drastic and effective, and the process must be open to discussion and debate in the House. If the code is introduced in a statutory instrument, it will not be
debatable, so I ask the Minister, when he replies to the debate, to make it absolutely clear that the code will be published before the Bill goes into Committee, so that we have the opportunity to consider it when we consider the relevant clauses. I understand that the code has been hotly debated by many people, none of whom has been democratically elected. They have all stirred the pot, so it is time the code was published so that we can all have a look at it.
Even when the Government have got it half right in some parts of the Bill, they have still managed to get it half wrong as well. Whether it is internal governance, the powers of the Audit Commission, NHS reform, the Standards Board or a stack of other matters, there is a lists of defects and errors that must be tackled. The fundamental problem, however, emphasised and underlined time and again by sins of commission and omission, is that the Government do not have any respect or regard for local government.
Mr. Gordon Prentice: What advice about consulting the views of local people would the hon. Gentleman give to Liberal councils that want to go from two-tier to unitary status? I know that it is his partys policy to hold a referendum before major structural changes happen, but in this case referendums are impractical, I suspect. What advice would he give?
Andrew Stunell: I have the advantage not only of the hon. Gentlemans intervention, but of a phone call from Lord Greaves, who is a councillor on Pendle borough council and who has his own views on these matters, as the House would expect.
My answer to the hon. Member for Pendle is that the Government have not been fair and straightforward with the House. Many of us understood that in relation to the creation of unitaries, it was the Governments intention to have a restricted numberalmost a small tidying-up operation. However, by casting their net so widely, they have set all sorts of hares running in various directions. The information that we have heard from Shropshire and Shrewsbury, from Lancashire, from Pendle and from practically every other county areaCheshire is an example known to me more personallyshows that there are strong views and strong voices raised in every direction, often by members of the same political party pulling in different directions. I note in passing that despite the letter that went out from the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) to all his councillors around the country, many of them are strongly engaged in that as well.
There is no commitment from the Government in the Bill to rebuilding a strong democratic society, and no vision for the future of grass-roots democracy. We will vote against the Bill today and seek to improve it in Committee. The Government have lost the respect of those of us who believe that local democracy should be the core of our national democracy.
Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): The Bill, which was described to us today by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State as a platform to deliver real change on the ground and real changes for local people to influence local decision making and improve their lives, comes when there is no doubt that our modern society is attaching far greater importance to what happens in our immediate neighbourhoods. Paradoxically, this is at a time when we are travelling more and when global issues are attracting much more of our attention.
I suspect that some of this renewed interest in localism and localities results from the centralism that we have experienced over the past few decadescentralism and paternalism from the state, which apparently knows best. However, the public are critical of the apparent growing differential between the type and quality of the services offered by neighbouring local authorities. We have a far more discerning and demanding population, aided by fast and effective access to information and media headlines. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that we have experienced an increase in criticism about a lack of local involvement, and concern about postcode lotteries.
We should put that criticism in context. In 1997 Labour inherited demoralised, cash-starved local authorities whose interest in performing well for their citizens was, understandably, not a top priority. They were simply trying to stay afloat. Our first priority in government was to raise standards and aspirations, which meant the centre continuing to take a very close interest in the delivery of local public services. With so many local authorities now performing well, it is possible for Ministers to let go of some of the control mechanisms and to trust local councils and local people.
The Bill is a move in the right direction, as it has the potential to offer local councils more freedom and power. Local authorities need those powers if they are to provide effective leadership. Citizens, too, will be able to take advantage of the opportunities offered in the Bill better to hold their elected representatives to account.
There is widespread support for the Bill. I recently spoke at an event organised by the New Local Government Network and attended by representatives from local authoritieselected and officialsand by voluntary and community organisations. There was a degree of consensus that the Bill was positive for the sector, butthere is always a buta number of issues were raised, and concerns were expressed that the Bill lacked teeth or, though well intentioned, was a little too vague in some areas.
I should like to focus on a couple of matters. The first relates specifically to the role of the voluntary sector and existing non-statutory partners. Everyone agrees that successful communities depend on strong local government. Sir Michael Lyons is clear about that when he refers to the importance of place shaping in achieving good community cohesion and thriving local economies. That can happen only if we have clear local leadership and greater involvement and engagement with the public and a range of partner bodies.
The voluntary sector plays an important role, which the Minister responsible for the third sector
acknowledged in his recent public comments. It is not there to take over delivering services but clearly has the experience, expertise and contacts on the ground to offer support and partnership when appropriate. It is also in a good position to assist individuals to scrutinise local authorities and elected members. Indeed, volunteers often act as advocates for marginalised groups in our societythe very people whom the Bill seeks to empower.
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