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John Healey: This group of amendments to part 3 would remove the provisions allowing councils to operate a directly elected executive model of governance arrangements. We were disappointed when the provisions were removed from the Bill in the other place. Directly elected executives were an important element of the measures that we set out in our original White Paper to provide stronger and more accountable leadership for councils. Those proposals were built on the executive models in the Local Government Act 2000. Directly elected executives are a way of dealing with the criticism of some that other models put too much power in the hands of particular individuals.
Although the Bill no longer contains proposals for directly elected executives, the measures set out in part 3 will still result in stronger and more accountable leadership. Councils will be able to choose between a directly elected mayor, and a leader and cabinet executive, which will be significantly strengthened by the Bill. We retain the ability to make regulations under the 2000 Act to provide for additional models of executive arrangements, including those comprising directly elected members.
I could have argued for what Ministers have described as the opportunity to provide local authorities with an innovative new model of governance arrangements and for the reinstatement of the directly elected executive model. However, given that I believe that the Bill will foster better leadership, that we retain a power to provide for executive models and that there is a broad consensus that we should enact the many important measures in this Bill as soon as possible, I ask the House to accept these amendments as a group and not to reinstate the provision for and the model of a directly elected executive.
Alistair Burt: The Minister could have argued for the return of the provisions, but as he has more than the modicum of common sense commonly associated with his colleagues on the Front Bench, he will not do so.
If one Googles barmy, one picks up hundreds of thousands of potential hits, not a few of which relate to the concept of directly elected executives, as discussed in Committee in this House and the other place. It was always difficult to work out where on earth the desire for directly elected executives originatedit was eventually revealed in the other place that Switzerland and Portugal were trying those things. The word barmy was used on more than one occasion by noble Lords, whom I suspect would not usually use such a term.
In general, there was a sense of surprise that a directly elected executive model of leadership was so strongly proposed by the Government, with apparently no outside support, when a modified committee system, which appeared to have quite a lot of outside supportat least, as an alternative executive arrangementwas not given any support or credence by the Government and was denied as a possible leadership model. That confused us even more.
Alistair Burt: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. We will all have to add a chief constable clause to future legislation, to ensure that it is all chief constable approved, no matter what it might be. In local government, we used to do that with a variety of matters. There could be a statement at the beginning of each Bill, saying that it had been approved by the Association of Chief Police Officers, but perhaps we can avoid that.
The fact that we have been able to see through the proposal is helpful. We regret that the leadership models are more prescriptive than we would have liked, because we would have liked councils to have the opportunity to choose a modified committee system. However, we do not regret the demise of the directly elected representatives. That will doubtless cause consternation in Geneva and Lisbon, but we will have to live with that sadness
Apart from the disappointment that will be felt in those places, we appreciate that the amendments were accepted in the other place, and we thank Baroness Hanham for her work on the issue. We are grateful for the combined efforts of the Opposition parties in the other place and we accept the amendments in this group.
Once again, we have a group of Lords amendments that move the Bill in the right direction. Specifically in this case, they do so in the
direction of common sense and away from barminess, as the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) suggests. The original provisions were barmy and restrictive; now they are simply restrictive, and we should be thankful for that.
In the Public Bill Committee, the Government were able to adduce no evidence that their preference for the systems proposed would produce better local government, which might have justified their intentions. Nor were the Government able to source the proposal for an elected executive. Switzerland and Portugal are new to me, because the best that they could come up with at the time was Stockton in the north-east. I had cause to speak to my colleagues on Stockton council, including the then mayor, and she told me that the council never considered that model and that it was a proposal made by the chief executive and the leader of the council without reference to anybody else. Perhaps not surprisingly, when we took evidence from Local Government Association representatives, they were baffled as to the source. Their collective response can be summed up as, Not me, guv. I am delighted that my colleagues in the other place, supported by Conservative and Cross-Bench colleagues, have secured the removal of that provision.
I do not understand the Governments love-in with the strong executive leadership model. There is no evidence to show that it leads to better running local authorities. It may not lead to worse run local authorities either, but the work of the Audit Commission was decisive. If the Government wish to persist with the proposal, I hope that they will not return to the House until they have evidence to show that the upheaval and sense of alienation that it would produce among those who participate in local government would be justified by improvements in efficiency, delivery of service, public engagement or any other positive for local democracy.
We should have the same freedom for local authorities to decide their own governance systems as we automatically give to others. If internal self-rule is good enough for Gibraltar, it should be good enough for Guildford. If it is good enough for Bermuda, it should be good enough for Birmingham; and if it is good enough for the Falklands, it should be good enough for Fareham. The Government should take their hands off local councils internal governance systems. They should recognise that local councils, if they are given the flexibility, will manage themselves effectively and efficiently. More to the point, they will be better able to engage their constituents in the running of their local democracy.
Mr. Syms: I too welcome what the Minister has said, especially about dropping the directly elected executive proposal. We started the Bill with an evidence session, and it was very useful. When we tried to identify from whence the proposal came, the Government said that it came from the LGA, but the LGA suggested that it came from the Government. After due process in both Houses, people have concluded that the proposal is not worth running with. The Government are probably wise not to die in a ditch for it, nor for other associated problems such as the idea that vacancies should be filled by election, and so on.
I want to pick up as well on what has been said about the modified committee system. Those of us who grew up in local government with the committee system in place believe that it is perfectly reasonable and needs only a few modifications. It is a pity that local government has not been given more latitude, although I am not sure that I go all the way with the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell). Too much latitude would allow local authorities with a certain political agenda to set up a system that would make it very difficult for minorities. Minorities on councils have to be protected, as all the political parties are very much in the minority in councils all over the country and we would certainly expect to have our say.
Madam Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 58 to 61, 63 to 72, 77, 79 to 85, 87, 93 to 97, 102 to 104, 106, 206, 210 to 212, 220, 221, 223, 241 to 243, and 245.
John Healey: These amendments relate to part 3 of the Bill covering executive arrangements. The importance and value of those arrangements were confirmed in the report that we published recently on evaluating local governance. I will send the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) a copy, as it provides the evidence in support of the development policy set out in the Bill.
Most of the amendments in the group are technical. They will ensure either that the provisions of the Bill work effectively, or that they are consistent with other pieces of legislation. However, some of the amendments are substantial and have to do with referendums. To help the House, I shall speak briefly about a couple of them.
The Government have proposed the amendments in question to provide local authorities with greater flexibility in the use of referendums, and to allow them to respond more quickly to their electorate when a referendum to change executive arrangements has been conducted. We have dealt with an anomaly in the Bill as drafted that meant that councils might have had to wait several years before being able to implement the result of a referendum.
Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North) (Lab): My hon. Friend the Minister will be aware that his predecessor in the post was in contact with MPs around Stoke-on-Trent about the democracy commission. Will he assure the House that these new amendments are consistent with the proposals for that commission?
Like my predecessor, I have been in discussion with Members who represent Stoke-on-Trent and I was pleased to announce the start of the
work of the democracy commission in Stoke. It is an important piece of work being carried out by an authoritative group of people. They will be fully mindful of the Bills provisions, and once the Bill receives Royal Assent I will ensure that they have the relevant details so that they can take them into account, as my hon. Friend encourages me to do.
The amendments ensure that when the result of a referendum is positive, the authority must resolve the change within 28 days to avoid the risk of a long time lag. Furthermore, where governance arrangements have been put in place as the result of a referendum, a further referendum will be required to change them. It is right that if the public have decided on a particular form of governance, the public should decide on changes to those arrangements in future.
Alistair Burt: In general, I agree with the emerging point that the amendments are moving in the direction we want. In this part of the Bill, there is some devolution of power and authority both to the people and to local authorities.
I am not certain about the quality of the executive model and I share the hesitation voiced by the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell). We are all well aware that whatever deficiencies there may have been in public service reforms in other parts of the Governments realmin health or educationlocal government has been able to produce results for the Government, partly because of strong centralised control. The issue is whether that control was driving the improved performance or whether improvements were being picked up by local councils, local authorities and local people and would have occurred in any case. I share the reservation that a set of prescriptive executive models would make a huge contribution to that process. We would much prefer local authorities to have the executive arrangements they want and to be able to choose from a variety of models, rather than the ones the Government set out.
I am sure that in many forums the Minister and I will be discussing interesting questions about the new relationship that will emerge between local government and central Government, as we try to work out a swing back from the centralism that has been part of the system for too long. I hope that in the future executive arrangements will be part of that process and that the Government will reconsider.
The provisions on referendums, to ensure that when people ask for a change in local government they are consulted on future proposals for change, are welcome and are part of a new spirit. Whatever the Bills other deficiencies, these amendments are welcome and the fruit of good discussions both in this and the other place.
Can my hon. Friend confirm that the authorities will be new and that even where an existing authority, such as Durham county council, is to be used as the legal vehicle for the new authority, it will none the less be a new body? Will such a body combine the services and functions of the districts and the county in one new authority? Will the orders affirm bids that have already been made by local authorities, especially those to minimise job losses, and uphold the jobs outlined in successful bids? Will it be possible for money and resources to be moved to front-line services, so that cuts, if they have to be made, are in back-room services where there is duplication?
Finally, will the orders deal quickly with a situation in which a council, as mine did in Durham city yesterday, takes a decision to sell off 50 pieces of land in advance of the new authority coming into being? Will there be something to stop it doing that and to ensure that such decisions are subject to proper scrutiny and consultation?
Andrew Stunell: We too welcome these changes. We all see the common sense of clarifying the referendum arrangements and the provision for making it absolutely explicit that when a decision has been reached following a referendum, it cannot be changed without a further referendum.
We are content with this string of amendments. On the points raised by the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods), I recall that in Committee we discussed extensively the difficulties that had arisen in 1972 and 1973 when, in a number of cases, outgoing authorities left ticking time bombs for the new authorities. We certainly received assurances that the system in place would avoid that while still leaving existing authorities that might have up to 18 months to run the flexibility to perform their functions adequately. I hope that the Minister is able to confirm that and, if not, tell us how he intends to provide reassurances as necessary.
John Healey: The points of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) were well made, but were actually not relevant to this part of the Bill. With your leave, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will write to her and set out the answers that she is searching for. I will do the same for the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell).
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