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22 Jan 2007 : Column 1190

Mr. Beith: When I see a barmy proposal, I say that I think that it is barmy. The point that I am putting to the Minister is that he should not force that proposal on any authority.

If the leader of a directly elected executive were to die during his term of office, or resign for some other reason, the whole lot would have to be elected all over again. If other councillors were then elected to the executive, they would have to resign from the council. The crucial difference with the House of Commons system is that when a Minister had to resign he was allowed to fight the by-election, and usually remained a Member of Parliament, so the Executive was still rooted in the elected body—but that is not what is envisaged in the council model.

The leader of a directly elected executive could not sack anybody. He could not conclude that someone was not a team player or was not helping to make a success of the executive and should be sacked. All that he could do is move someone, for example, from education to waste disposal. Sometimes that seems to happen in cabinets anyway, when political factors make it difficult to sack someone—but under this model it would be impossible to sack anyone.

Mr. Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington, East) (Lab): I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, because strong leadership requires strong accountability. Therefore, I have concerns about a directly elected executive, and about a directly elected leadership. The Bill does not specify what method could be used to remove a leader who does not perform—it uses the word “may”. For a host of reasons, local authorities need the option to remove a leader if it is felt that he or she is not operating properly.

Mr. Beith: There is common ground between us on that point. People can put forward different models and the Government can make provision for them to be used, but I do not want prescription by the Government, whereby local authorities are saddled with a system that they cannot change after they have had some experience with it. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley) mentioned the situation in Stoke, where the procedures make it difficult to change even if there is a consensus in favour of that change.

The Bill is still loaded in favour of certain preferred solutions, and it would be much better if the Government, while keeping whatever models they want—including ones that I think are barmy—provided a procedure for local authorities to adopt a model but to be able to change it if it is wrong. We could also have a trigger mechanism that allowed the electorate to say that a model was not working, and hold a referendum to defeat it. That would be an improvement. However, the main purpose of my speech was to give the Minister some guidance on how he might view what almost everybody in Northumberland regards as an unacceptable bid to create a single unitary authority for the county.

6.19 pm

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): I welcome many aspects of the Bill, but like many other hon. Members who care about the future of local
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government and want to see it restored, and local democracy strengthened, I want it go further. I welcome the Bill for very much the same reasons that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out when she introduced it. It is the start of a process, and it contains much for us to build on. Like other hon. Members, I recognise that dealing with the structures and functions of local government can be only a part of the process of revitalising local democracy. The fundamental questions of how local services are funded and paid for must wait for the Lyons review. Only by returning responsibility for most of local government revenue to the local level can we ensure that accountability to the local electorate is fully restored.

I want to concentrate on four aspects of the Bill. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) touched in passing on the first—that measures to revive local democracy can be successful only if high-calibre candidates from a cross-section of a local community are willing to serve. In many areas, such people do not put themselves forward for election, and the sad fact is that the average age of councillors is now somewhere in the late 50s, with barely one in eight under the age of 45.

All political parties find it difficult to get younger people to stand. Women remain under-represented in many local authorities, and minority groups often do not get a look in. Equally, the calibre of council candidates presents an enormous challenge. All parties will admit privately—and some of them will do so publicly—that in many areas it is difficult to get effective local people to put themselves forward as candidates, or to stand for a second term. Far too often, people will serve one term and then decide to go and do something useful—to “get a life”, as some have expressed it. I served on a local council for 30 years, and I have some sympathy for them. Perhaps I was the one who did not get away.

Anne Main: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that people do not choose to serve more than one term because they are accused of not delivering to the public, even though they have very few powers and often just have to deliver what the Government ask them to? They get all that public hatred, and have no power to do anything about it.

Sir Peter Soulsby: Many local councillors share that perception, but the problem also stems in part from the denigration and undermining of local government that took place under the previous Conservative Government. That has contributed to the present low morale among members of local government.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Standards Board for England has done a lot to undermine the confidence of people who become councillors? Does he accept that the Bill does not go far enough in effecting root-and-branch reform of the board, and how would he put that right?

Sir Peter Soulsby: I believe that the Standards Board has done an enormous amount to raise standards in local government. I welcome that, as I do the reforms
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proposed in the Bill to strengthen the mechanisms for ensuring that the very highest levels of probity are maintained throughout local government.

People must perceive the local councillor’s role as worth while. The Bill addresses that problem to some extent, but for some years now the scrutiny function has been undervalued and under-resourced. Too often, those councillors consigned to the scrutiny role have felt impotent and unable to affect anything that matters. Scrutiny is regarded as an answer to the question, “What do we do with councillors who aren’t in the cabinet?” It is not considered to be something that has a value in itself.

I welcome the provisions that give more support to help councillors to serve their constituents.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Does my hon. Friend agree that people will not get involved in politics, and take the scrutiny role seriously, unless they feel that they can change decisions that have been taken? The weakness of the system introduced—unfortunately—by this Government is that the scrutiny role is regarded in most councils as the poor relation to a cabinet position, and that is because people involved in scrutiny cannot affect the outcome of cabinet decisions.

Sir Peter Soulsby: I very much agree with my hon. Friend. I welcome the measures to strengthen the scrutiny role, but I am firmly of the opinion that councillors need to feel that they have something worth while to do, regardless of their authority’s leadership structure. They must be able to initiate policy and to make real decisions that have an impact on their constituents. I welcome the changes proposed, but the Government could do much more to enable councillors to feel that they can make a difference, whatever their role.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that we should consider how people value the councillor’s role? If that role is diminished, so that councillors are unable to direct policy and make big decisions, will not people feel that the value of turning out and voting is also diminished?

Sir Peter Soulsby: Yes. I have no doubt that the way in which candidates and councillors see their role has an impact on how people regard their responsibility to vote in local elections. We must encourage people to vote, and ensure that those who are minded to put themselves forward feel that they are performing a useful function.

Mr. Burrowes: Does the hon. Gentleman share my profound concern that the option of a committee structure is, with some exceptions, excluded from the Bill? The committee structure gave new councillors an obvious way to hold a local executive to account, and helped members of the public to know what was going on in their council.

Sir Peter Soulsby: The hon. Gentleman must have been reading my notes, as I shall come to that in a few moments.

If we are to have strong councils, we need good councillors. Getting them represents a challenge for the
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Government, local authorities, the Local Government Association, the Improvement and Development Agency, and for the political parties. We must do all that we can to encourage good-calibre people to come forward, and to ensure that they perform a useful function when they are elected.

The second aspect of the Bill about which I want to speak has to do with the leadership of local councils. The cabinet system—and I have referred already to the scrutiny element—has been less than completely successful in achieving its stated aims, which included making decisions more transparent, timely and effective. The system was designed to give the public at large a clearer view of what was happening in a local authority, and to enable authorities in turn to provide leadership to their communities. Although it may have worked in some areas, it did not work everywhere and it is certainly not a model that some local authorities have been able to use as effectively as its original proponents hoped.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I am most interested in what my hon. Friend is saying, but was not the reform that created the cabinet system deliberately intended to shift power from the back benches to the leadership of councils? I am not saying that I agree with that, but has not the reform been effective?

Sir Peter Soulsby: The reform may have been effective in the way my hon. Friend suggests, although I do not recall that result being proposed as the original justification. The justification for the reform was as I have described, but the results were often counter-productive of the originally stated aims. It has often produced decision making that is less accountable and less transparent, and left local people less connected with their local authorities than before.

Mr. Kevan Jones: I used to be on a finance committee, where we could stop and change decisions, and question officers about the issues. In most local authorities that system has ended and the reasons for decisions are now shrouded in mystery. Does my hon. Friend agree that the effect of that change has been to give not only some councillors but, more worryingly, unelected officers more power?

Sir Peter Soulsby: I chaired many local government committees and chaired the policy and resources committee for a number of years. I certainly felt much more accountable as the chair of the policy and resources committee than could ever be the case for councillors who serve in the cabinet of the local authority of which I was once a member. The old committee system had many failings, but it provided clarity of decision making. It was clear who was taking the decision and there were mechanisms for accountability of decision making. Members of other parties could hold to account the majority group, which chaired the committee and often made the proposals. The system had many strengths alongside some undoubted weaknesses.

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I welcome the Government’s intention in general terms to provide clearer leadership in local government, but I have reservations about the choices offered. I share some of the reservations expressed by other Members. I suspect that, when faced with the choices that the Government propose, the majority of local authorities will opt for the model they consider nearest the status quo. There are many vested interests in most local authorities that will lead them to do that. Inevitably, the option that most will take is for a leader with a four-year term. I suspect that that proposed change will prove little more than an illusion when we consider the reality behind it.

Nothing in the Bill will prevent a political group in the privacy of a group room from changing its leader whenever it chooses and by whatever mechanism it chooses. In most circumstances, that change of leadership and the loss of confidence implied will have to result in a change of council leadership, whatever the mechanism for achieving such a change. Loss of confidence in the majority political group would inevitably result in a change of council leadership, too, and mechanisms would have to be devised to ensure that that is possible. There would be very little difference from the current situation. I say that as someone who survived 17 annual general meetings. The council leader only ever had one-year terms—from one AGM to the next—and I suspect that the result of the Government’s option will be little different.

Kelvin Hopkins: I congratulate my hon. Friend on surviving 17 AGMs—he must have been a splendid council leader to inspire such confidence—but does not that demonstrate that the system was much more democratic, which engendered enthusiasm for it among councillors and political parties? Does he agree that returning to the traditional committee system that we enjoyed in the past is one possibility that could be offered?

Sir Peter Soulsby: My notes must have been shared among my hon. Friends as well as with Opposition Members; my hon. Friend expresses precisely my view.

I want to say a little about directly elected mayors, as I feel the Government ought to press that option more strongly, and it should be encouraged in more urban areas. It is a legitimate option in the present situation. Direct election of a mayor, with proper mechanisms for accountability, could provide a person with a clear mandate to take bold decisions, who was able to foster partnerships with others in the community on equal terms and provide the clear community leadership that was possible but not always easy in the traditional system.

Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I defer to the hon. Gentleman’s greater local government experience—I served for only eight years on a London borough. I hope that the Whips are not listening, because I agree with almost everything he has said, which is dangerous for both of us. Does he agree, however, that directly elected mayors have failed to catch the public imagination? Turnouts in referendums and mayoral ballots have been extremely low and the system has not hit it off with the electorate, so does he
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agree that the Government should conclude that it is not the British way—that it has not worked and should not be tried in the future?

Sir Peter Soulsby: I was not proposing directly elected mayors as a panacea for all the ills of local government. As I indicated in my opening remarks, the funding of local government is a fundamental issue, but directly elected mayors would be appropriate in some areas and, as I have suggested in responses to other interventions, if a choice is to be given, there should be the option of returning to a structure much more akin to the one with which those of us who began in local government many years ago are familiar. I acknowledge that improvements to the committee system could be made, and that a degree of executive authority could be given to the chairs of committees, but if options are to be given, the two that would be most appealing in terms of revitalising local government are the directly elected mayor and something akin to the former committee system.

Joan Walley: As my hon. Friend feels that an elected mayor would be most in the interests of democracy, will he tell us how that would be consistent with encouraging people, young and old, to stand for election as local councillors and to be responsible for strategic decisions, not just for spending a small pot of community money?

Sir Peter Soulsby: The option would be perfectly compatible with that aim. Alongside a directly elected mayor must be a properly empowered council to which the mayor is accountable, and which provides a budget and approves strategic plans. The role of an elected mayor can be compatible with a strengthened role for back-bench council members.

As one of the Members representing the city of Leicester, my third point is of particular concern to me but will be familiar to many other Members who represent urban areas with tightly drawn boundaries. Boundaries in Leicester and in many local authorities throughout the United Kingdom surround the conurbations of many decades ago and are far too tightly drawn for modern needs. Clearly, the Bill will not deal with the issue of boundaries—I would not expect it to—but the problems of the urban core can still only be properly addressed outside their very confined boundaries. Similarly, the potential of those areas can be fully achieved only beyond those confined boundaries of local government areas, which are now long out of date.

I welcome the requirements for local partnerships and widespread agreements, but the fact remains that, if a local authority is to respond effectively to problems and fulfil opportunities at the urban core, it must be able to insist on the co-operation of its neighbours. I hope that, as the Bill receives further consideration, it will be possible to look at ways in which councils at the core of urban areas can be equipped to require their neighbours, whose concerns may be more parochial, to co-operate in addressing what ought to be common problems.

My fourth point has inevitably not had much attention today; I refer to the proposals to establish LINKs. I have reservations about the abolition of the
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patients forums. I believe that their work could have been built on rather than replaced by LINKs. Some fundamental questions about LINKs need to be addressed. First, we need to address how they will be funded and ensure that they are adequately funded. We must ensure that the Nolan principles are applied to them. As far as possible, existing members of forums should be enabled to take part in LINKs. We also need to ensure that they have adequate access to information and details on the workings of those whose work they will be monitoring. Only with those safeguards and associated powers will LINKs have the credibility that the Government hope for them.

To conclude, despite all I have said, there is much in the Bill to be welcomed. It takes some important steps forward towards revitalising and re-empowering local democracy, but I hope that the Secretary of State and Ministers on the Treasury Bench will have noticed the number of Members on both sides of the Chamber who have made what I hope the Government will view as helpful and constructive suggestions on ways in which the Bill can be strengthened. I hope that the Secretary of State and her colleagues will be sympathetic to the improvements suggested in this debate, which will no doubt be put forward in Committee.

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