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I do indeed recall the strengths of that system as well as its weaknesses. I am convinced that those strengths can be used to produce a reformed committee structure and a system that would enable the leadership and accountability that we have all said we would wish local government to deliver. [Official Report, Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Public Bill Committee, 20 February 2007; c. 457.]
He is right. Committee members of different parties expressed the same sense. We could not quite understand why the Government were so adamant about closing down the option of a revised committee system.
In the spirit of the debates that we have had, I urge the Minister to think again when this Bill passes to another place, and to listen to councillors who say that the change from the committee system has disfranchised a number of back-bench councillors who want more to their role than just scrutiny. They want to deliver more. Councillor Phyllis Gershon of Bedfordshire county councilI am delighted to have had the chance to mention Bedfordshire, as it has not been included in the place-naming during the course of the eveninghas persistently told me that councils need that option. It should not be forced on them, but it should be an option for them. I ask the Minister: why be so prescriptive?
My third and last point relates to elected executives. The Government will not allow councils the option of a revised, modernised committee system, which many councillors have mentioned, including the council leaders who came to brief the Committee. Members of the Committee have also spoken about it. However, the Government are prepared to press heavily for elected executives, although we cannot see any evidence that anyone wants them. We pressed the Minister on that in Committee: where are the examples of the public, or the local government fraternity, clamouring for the opportunity to deliver elected executives? The Minister was not able to enlighten us. I therefore humbly suggest that local authorities will not pick up on that option. I cannot see why he should be so keen on that option, but not on a modernised committee system. Several of our amendments deal with an elected executive and, had there been more time, we would probably have pressed an amendment on throwing out the elected executive option. Instead, we will probably press to a vote the general amendment on clause 34 that I mentioned earlier.
Those are my three pointslocal freedom is being denied, the committee model is not provided as an option and elected executives are being given the thumbs up by Government when nobody seems to want them. In the spirit of the Bill, which is supposed to be about a listening Government, we have given the Government an opportunity not to be prescriptive. They have not taken similar chances in the past, and that has marred the Bill, but this is an opportunity for a champagne moment. The Minister could say, We have listened to you, youve got it right, and well give it up.
Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I of course endorse everything that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) said, but I speak in support of amendment No. 259, in my name. It would delete clause 51 and the time limit for holding referendums. Clause 51 states:
A local authority...in England may not hold more than one referendum in any period of ten years.
applies to referendums held before, and referendums held after, this section comes into force.
It seems to me that the clause has been put in specifically to deal with what might be described as the Doncaster problem.
The elected mayor in Doncaster is very unpopular and has become a bit of a laughing stock. The residents of Doncaster have put together a petition, with the
necessary signatures, to have a further referendum on whether to scrap the mayoral system in the area, much to the embarrassment, no doubt, of the Labour party in Doncaster and of the Government, who have tried so hard to push the mayoral system in this country. This clause appears to be a cynical attempt to prevent the good people of Doncaster from being able to get rid of their mayor. I hope that the Minister will be able to confirmif he will not accept my amendmentthat the people of Doncaster, who have gathered the thousands of names on the petition to get rid of the mayorthat has been endorsed by Doncaster councilwill not be prevented from having a referendum to get rid of their unpopular mayor. I hope that the Minister will address that point when he winds up.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was in his place for the beginning of this debate, so I shall call the Minister.
Mr. Woolas: This debate has, not surprisingly, repeated some of the points that were made in Committee. I shall try to answer some of the questions that have been raised. I acknowledge the limits to devolution that the Bill imposes and I shall try to convince the House of the justification for them. The Government believe that those limits are in the best interests of local government and sustainable communities.
I am glad that the main pointthat the Bill is devolutionaryis broadly accepted. Last week, I cited the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), a previous Minister with responsibility for local government, that change in local government finance was a marathon, not a sprint. Change in the power relationships between central and local government, and local government and its communities, is, if not a marathon, at least a 10 km run. It should certainly not be done in haste, and it is important to build consensus.
The second principle is that in devolving powers, the Governmentand, I suggest, Parliamenthave a responsibility to do so to structures and functions that can take responsibility on behalf of the public. The logical consequence of the argument of the devolutionist without any catalyst is that local areas should be free to choose their own form of local government. I think that there are limits and I shall explain what they are.
Our arguments are not just based on opinion; there is substantial research to back up our points. Indeed, I will shortly publish a paper entitled Does Leadership Matter?, including research showing that the two main current models of executive arrangementsdirectly elected mayors and leaders with cabinetsdemonstrate benefits in visibility and accountability and the streamlined focus for decision-making that is needed in modern local government. I do not base my arguments only on that report, of course, because the House has yet to see it. It will be published shortly, but there is further evidence that has already been published.
It is truethe hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire put the argument in Committeethat the best leaders can be successful in any system. The argument of some who propose elected mayors often
relies on the example of New York in recent years, but they fail to point out that New York went bankrupt under a system of elected mayors. It does not logically follow that the structural system for governance of local authorities necessarily provides strong leaders. Neither does the opposite followthere could be a complete shambles and strong leaders emerge from that
Michael Fabricant: Tony Blair.
Mr. Woolas: The hon. Gentleman mentions my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and I would agree with him. We were in a bit of a mess and my right hon. Friend did come and sort things out. God bless him for that. There are only four or five weeks left before jokes about public schoolboys can become part of our debates again without any embarrassment on our part. I am looking forward to that because I am told that there are five old Etonians in the shadow Cabinet[Hon. Members: Only five!] That is just Etonyou are frowning at me, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I was merely wondering where this was going, and I suspect that it is further and further away from the new clause.
Mr. Woolas: I am desperately trying to sustain the argument, with little success, that the structure of local government has a relationship to the strength of leadership, but is not a causal effect. My argument is that the arrangements we have suggested are more likely to lead to such circumstances.
Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?
Mr. Woolas: I will of course give way to my hon. Friend, as she represents Stoke, which has a unique system.
Joan Walley: I am listening carefully to my hon. Friends remarks, but Stoke-on-Trent is in a category all of its own, because of the system of a council manager and an elected mayor, and that was mentioned specifically in the White Paper. Can he reassure me that arrangements are in hand to enable us to proceed with the promised commission so that in Stoke-on-Trent we can reach our own decision on how to proceed at the next local elections, which will be relevant to finding a way forward?
Mr. Woolas: My hon. Friend once again takes the opportunity to promote the case for Stoke-on-Trent, and I commend her for that. Only two local authorities in this country present separate cases. Stoke-on-Trent is the only one to have adopted the elected mayor with the city manager model, and that is different from the one in Doncaster to which the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) referred. In addition, the council in Brighton and Hove also has separate arrangements. The commission is going ahead and announcements will be made shortly about Stoke-on-Trent, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her support in that process.
Of course, there are caveats. Just as other councils face restrictions on what they can and cannot do, if the
commission proposed to create a kibbutz for governance in Stoke-on-Trent I would not accept it. However, on a more serious note, the answer to the question poised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley) is yes, very definitely. Part of my argument is that Stoke-on-Trent needs that model of governance, but it has its limits.
I am not making a cause and effect argument. The evidence is that the most likely improvements are made when strong executive arrangements are in place.
Andrew Stunell: What makes the Minister think that the models that he has chosen this time will have a higher ratio of success than last time? He has already said that the Stoke model had not succeeded, so why does he believe that central direction is essential to the process?
Mr. Woolas: First, in Stoke, Doncaster and elsewhere it is important that we separate the office holder from the office. The hon. Member for Shipley referred to a petition in Doncaster. I am not sure what it has to do with him as Doncaster is not in his bit of the county, but he asked a question and I shall answer it. The petition relates to the position of the mayoralty, but we must separate that post from the person who occupies it. If an electorate want to remove a mayor, they can do so at the ballot box, but separate arrangements govern changing the office, as I shall explain later.
I shall lay out some of the evidence that I hope will convince the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell). It is generally accepted by local authorities that the new arrangements have, on the whole, led to some improvement. For example, a recent survey of councillors and officers showed that 71 per cent. believe that leadership by executive councillors has had a positive impact on the performance improvement in their authorities. More than half of councillors and nearly three quarters of officers believe that the new arrangements have made the executive more effective in articulating the vision for their area.
What is important is that, through the new arrangements, the Government and Parliament are asking local authorities to take on more responsibilities in their work with other public sector agency partners and with the private and voluntary sectors in their areas. Sir Michael Lyons described that role as place shaping.
I know that the hon. Member for Hazel Grove accepts that the process of devolution and decentralisation is about more than devolving responsibilities to local government. It is also about devolving those responsibilities from Whitehall to the other public sector partnerships in a local area. That is why the publics requirement for strong executive leadership goes beyond the council itself and includes services across their area.
Secondly, to complete the jigsaw, this Bill builds on the arrangements for overview and scrutiny put in place by previous legislation. Those arrangements cover the work of the local authority and all public sector and other organisations in the delivery of local government services. Indeed, this Bill brings health and local government closer together.
Tom Levitt: I agree with every word of the last couple of paragraphs uttered by my hon. Friend the Minister, and that is why I believe that this is such a good Bill. Throughout the debate, we have acknowledged that it extends the range of choices available to local authorities. It does not do so universallysometimes the range is extended in some directions more than othersand we have argued about that previously. However, does he agree that the provisions under discussion extend the choice available to local authorities in such a way that they are able to find the best direction for governance locally? Ironically, given what we have heard this afternoon, would not new clause 34 reduce the options available to councils?
Mr. Woolas: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Ironicallyalthough perhaps it is not so surprisingwe are having a topsy turvy debate. The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire claims that his proposals would benefit devolution, even though they do not. To be fair to the hon. Member for Hazel Grove, his proposals do promote devolution, although I think that they go too far. However, we should not be surprised at all that: the Conservatives are centralists, while the Liberal Democrats are devolutionists without responsibility. I guess that explains where we have ended up. I must try to rebuild the consensus that I have been crafting so carefully for the past two years and which I may have destroyed in the last 10 seconds. This debate has revealed the divergence of view between the Liberal Democrats and the main Opposition party, whose proposed new clauses would reduce the range of choice that the Government are offering.
Neither I nor the Government claim, as the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire suggested, that councils are clamouring after the elected executive model. I readily concede that they are not.
Mr. Woolas: They will be clamouring for it in the future, of course, but the serious point is that the idea for directly elected executives came from local authorities themselves. Given that that model meets the criteria of providing a strong leadership model with clearer visibility and accountability, it would be wrong to rule it out. My problem with the old committee structure, and with most of the enhanced committee structures that I have seen in practice, is that they do not provide clear leadership. I think that the changes in the Bill will get the balance right.
Andrew Stunell: Will the Minister give way?
Mr. Woolas: I will because the hon. Gentleman has been consistent on this point.
I very much appreciate the Minister giving way. He said that directly elected executives had the support of local authoritiesthat is, in the plural. The LGA told us in evidence that one local authority supported the idea, but I discovered subsequently that that evidence had not been discussed in the council before it was submitted. What other council shares that
point of view and thus justifies his assertion that local authorities, in the plural, supported the directly elected executive model?
Mr. Woolas: I did not say that local authorities supported that model, but that the idea had come from them. That is a different matter, but the answer to his question is embodied in the strong executive and Liberal Democrat leader of Cornwall county council. I could also speak about Stockton, Durham and elsewhere, but the serious point is that the idea has support in local authorities that cover very large geographical areas. There, the traditional system of making up the cabinet from divisional ward members requires huge amounts of travel, often for short meetings. In part, the idea of the directly elected executive arose from the geography of those areasbut, hey, let us not worry about that. If the people in those areas want to pick up that option, they can; if they do not, they do not have to.
Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend accept that although strengthening executive powers as he suggests has certain advantages, it may increase the alienation of back-bench councillors? Is he concerned about that?
Mr. Woolas: One important argument about the benefits of the old committee system is that it brought experience to so-called back-bench councillors, or front-line councillors as many people refer to them, but I believe that the overview and scrutiny process that is now embedding provides that experience. The process can increasingly involve not just scrutinising executive decisions but making recommendations and reports, rather as our Select Committees do, and crucially it does so across the public sector, not just in the institution of the council. My second argument, with which I hope my hon. Friend will agree, is that we are kidding ourselves if we think that the old committee system did not involve an executive; it had a hidden executivethe chairs of the senior committees were, ipso facto, the executive of the council. Our model offers a better way forward.
To the first point made by the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshirelet them chooseI say, yes but within limits. The hon. Gentlemans second pointthat the revised committee decision-making system should be a matter for local councillorsdoes not, I fear, meet the new statutory framework that the Bill puts in place. On clamouring for elected executives, the hon. Gentleman has a point, but let him give me a champagne moment: let them have it if they want it and we will not worry about it. Perhaps we could call it the Burt system.
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