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Westminster Hall

Thursday 5 September 2013

[Annette Brooke in the Chair]

“Councillors on the Frontline”

[Relevant documents: Sixth Report of the Communities and Local Government Committee, Councillors on the Frontline, HC 432, and the Government Response, Cm 8582.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Evennett.)

1.30 pm

Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): It gives me great pleasure to introduce the report by the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, “Councillors on the Frontline”. The title was changed between the initiation of our inquiry and the eventual production of the report; I will explain in a moment how the term “Councillors on the Frontline” came about. It was changed from “Councillors in the Community”, the first name that we chose.

Councillors do a vital job. I might even get agreement from the Minister on that. Perhaps he will not agree with everything that I say from now on, but that is certainly not a bad place to start. Councillors are on the front line of service delivery and democracy, and they are the lifeblood of our democratic system. I feel strongly about the importance of the role that they play.

Our inquiry first considered who we wanted to take evidence from and how we should take it. Obviously, we called Dame Joan Roberts, because of the Roberts commission. It was a useful starting point for looking at what had been done, but apart from that, we considered the matter afresh. We took evidence from people; we did not go back to see what had or had not been agreed in the past. We considered the role that councillors perform and the current barriers and obstacles to their performance.

We took formal evidence from a variety of organisations, and, in the end, from the Minister, but we also tried to go out and search for evidence in a slightly different way. We began with a seminar of councillors from a variety of authorities and of different statuses within authorities. Some were cabinet members, some were leaders and some were councillors whom we at first termed back-bench councillors. We took evidence from them at those seminars, organised by the Local Government Association.

We had an interesting visit to Sunderland to see what councillors were doing on the ground. I see the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) nodding his head; I think that we all found it interesting. They were genuinely trying to devolve power to local councillors and local communities. That is where the title “Councillors on the Frontline” came from. I asked a colleague who remembered me from the Association of Metropolitan Authorities many years ago, “What about your role now as a back-bench councillor?” He said, “Clive, I’m not

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a back-bench councillor; I’m a front-line councillor.” I thought that that change in mindset was important, and we took our report heading from it.

We took evidence formally. We had a speed-dating session. I was not quite sure what that was, but essentially, we got in a number of people, and Committee members went around individually and chatted to them for 10 or 15 minutes each, taking information, ideas and views from them. That was interesting, because we did not really invite councillors; we invited people who had been councillors and given it up for whatever reason, and people who were community activists but had decided not to be councillors. They were playing a vital role, but they had decided that being a councillor was not for them, or they would have liked to be councillors, but had found certain obstacles in the way. That helped better inform our understanding of the situation. It was an important start.

We also considered the surveys that had been done on the composition of councils. It is worrying—I know that the LGA is worried—that the average age of a councillor in this country is 60. I want to make it clear that there are many excellent white male councillors of retirement age doing a very good job, but equally clearly, there are many women, young people and people from black and minority ethnic communities who could be doing a good job as councillors but are not. We considered that challenge right at the beginning. It certainly influenced our discussions thereafter. The fact is that 69% of councillors are men, 96% are white and 45% are over retirement age. They are not reflective of their communities in that sense. That issue was clearly flagged up at the beginning in the information that the Committee received.

We know that the role of councillors is changing significantly, and we reflected that. The development of the cabinet system over the years has changed councillors’ role, as has the fact that they are involved in scrutiny. Scrutiny committees did not exist when I was a councillor back in the 1980s. Even where the cabinet system has been introduced, councils have responded to it and dealt with it in different ways, but there is clearly now a role for front-line councillors who represent their community—they have been called facilitators, civic entrepreneurs and a variety of other names—to go out and engage with their communities in a practical and meaningful way.

Different councils do that differently. We saw evidence in Sunderland of a proactive approach to training and encouraging councillors, setting up area committees with area budgets and an area manager and encouraging councillors to meet and work with other public bodies, schools and voluntary groups. Those councillors had some power and influence to get things done in those communities. When we visited one of the local area committees, we said to the leader of the opposition, who happened to be a councillor in that ward, “What do you make of all this?” He said, “As a ward councillor, I think it’s great. It actually works. I have influence, and I can get things done in my local community. My local community can come to me knowing that. That has been a change. But as leader of the opposition, I think it’s a long step backwards, because now I have many fewer things that I can complain about to the local newspapers. Things are done better and more responsively to the needs of local constituents.” I thought that that was a powerful and honest message.

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When we did our report on localism earlier in this Parliament, we encouraged councils to look at the second level of localism and devolution. It was right that Government should push powers down to councils—we can have views about how well or badly that has been done—but councils should be encouraged to do so as well, in a variety of ways. It would be down to local councils to do that in their own way in their own area. Circumstances will be different in different parts of the country, but we certainly encouraged that in our report.

When we did a report on the co-operative council, we went to Lambeth, where my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed), who was then the leader of Lambeth council, showed us examples of what happens on the ground. My neighbouring authority, Barnsley, has just produced a report about developing area and ward budgets on a stronger basis. Again, lots of councils of all political persuasions are doing that, and it should be welcomed. It gives a much more meaningful role for all the councillors in a local authority. We recognised and recommended such action, and we thought that the LGA could play a role by identifying examples of good practice, not so that everyone would do things in the same way, but so that individual councils could be aware of what happens in other areas as well. We were pleased with what we saw in Sunderland.

We know that councils are going through a time of great change. The localism agenda has certainly produced changes, as have the housing revenue account reforms, which the Committee welcomed, and the city deals, which is one of the best things that this Government have done. In my authority, thanks to the city deal, the council is taking on powers over apprenticeships and economic development. That is positive. The working relationship with local enterprise partnerships is another change, as are public health changes, on which we also did a report recently, the commissioning of adult care and the development of combined authorities.

Those are big challenges for councils. At one time, one could be a councillor for 10 years and nothing much would change in terms of how councils ran. An awful lot has changed. It changed in previous Parliaments, and it has changed a lot in this Parliament. It is a bit challenging for councils to keep abreast while carrying on doing their important and difficult job.

The Committee said—perhaps this is one area where the Minister will not necessarily agree with me—that we were not always sure that ministerial comments were helpful to councils in doing their job. Over the summer, we have heard how councils can better manage their parking arrangements, how parking can be organised on double-yellow lines, and how they can put their bins in better places. They have been accused of being democracy duckers for not holding referendums, because they did not put the council tax up by more than 2%. Most of those matters are for local councils to decide. If the Secretary of State is always second-guessing things right down to the minute detail, it gives the impression that somehow councillors cannot be trusted to get on and do the job they are elected for. One of our recommendations said:

“We remain concerned about the Government’s mixed messages on localism. The Secretary of State’s use of terms such as “guided localism” and now “muscular localism”—

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which he used about the planning changes—

“suggests an inability to let go of the reins and embrace the concept fully. This can be frustrating and confusing for councillors and councils wishing to make the most of localism.”

That is not just a concern of the Select Committee; it very much reflects what councils and councillors, of all political persuasions, have been saying to the Committee. We made that point in our recommendations because if we really are going to say that powers are being passed over to councils, and that they will exercise them according to local conditions, we cannot always second-guess them and criticise them when one council does something in a slightly different way from another.

The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) is here, and in his previous life as a Minister, he spoke about what I thought was an important concept: he said that it was not a matter of postcode lottery, but of postcode choice. We should not be against postcode choice; if councils make that choice rationally and properly, we should encourage them to do so as an important part of localism. I certainly think that, and I believe that the Committee would concur.

On the composition of councils, we were concerned about the age of councillors, the balance of men and women, and the balance of those from white and BME communities. They are not representative, they do not properly reflect their communities, and that is not healthy for democracy. To some extent, we recognise that it is the political parties’ job to sort that out. Representatives from the parties gave evidence to us, and we were encouraged and pleased that they all seemed to recognise the problem. They have different ways of addressing it—women-only shortlists is something we do in the Labour party, but I know that the Conservative party is not convinced by that—but at least everyone who gave evidence appreciated the problem and wanted to do something about it.

However, we were not always convinced, in the case of any party, that the promises made at national level were necessarily being communicated, dealt with and implemented at a local level. All the parties still have to look at and deal with that challenge, but if we get this right, we can encourage a lot more people to come into local government. That will help stimulate local government and create a greater vibrancy. New people coming in with fresh ideas—particularly those from different backgrounds, including younger people, people from the BME community, and more women—will always change the way of thinking and come up with new ideas and solutions. That should be welcomed, and we should encourage it.

We welcome the Local Government Association’s Be a Councillor programme. We thought that was excellent. We wanted to encourage it, widen it and get local councils involved in the promotion of democracy in their areas. We thought councils could do that. They do not have to do it on a party-political basis—of course not. They can simply encourage young people to get involved in the democratic process, and that would be good.

We looked at performance and training. There is always a worry, particularly in these times of great financial hardship for local authorities that—this is an added problem for councils to tackle—the support that councillors receive gets cut back. If anything, councillors,

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need more support and training, given the very difficult decisions they are now making. That is a decision for local authorities to make, but again, in this area, Ministers’ voices could be raised. They could say, “Well, all right, it is down to councils, but when large sums of public money are being spent, it is important that the people making those decisions have as much expertise and skill as possible and that they get the required training.” Making sure that happens is a challenge for councils up and down the country.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Is my hon. Friend suggesting—it would be highly controversial—that Members of Parliament should be trained for the job as well? The urgent statement we had today shows the real problems that arise when we have undertrained Members of Parliament, who have not been trained as Ministers, supervising civil servants who get out of control.

Mr Betts: I thank my hon. Friend for that—I think—but I will not be led down the road of discussing a debate that happened in Parliament this morning. However, I think there is a case for such training. I pointed out the major financial changes in local government that councils are having to deal with, but of course, we have to deal with those as Members of Parliament, too.

On our Committee, for example, we have tried to get more briefings from the Scrutiny Unit in Parliament, which is an excellent resource, and from the National Audit Office, which is trying to work more closely with us, so that we can understand some of the complicated technical issues—which I am sure that the Minister can explain to us, if he wishes, at any point in time. We are all trying to grapple with these issues, and I agree that training is important for us as well. It is also important that we try and reach out to potential councillors and potential candidates, and that parties and local councils work on that as well.

We looked at the barriers, why we have an unrepresentative group, and why certain people feel it is just not for them. Perhaps they would like to be a councillor, but they do not become one. Time is a factor. Flippant comments are often made, such as “Well, it’s only a part-time job, a few hours a week.” I do not think it is; the ward work alone can be demanding. Cabinet members clearly have larger time commitments, but if someone is on a scrutiny committee and they are going to do what we saw in Sunderland, where ward councillors are taking decisions through area committees and are spending money, that is also a time commitment. It is easier for retired people than it is for people who work, which is why more retired people tend to go on councils. That is a fact, but it is also a challenge and a barrier.

I remember a time in Sheffield when all the major steelworks would almost vie with each other. One would say, “We’ve got two councillors on the council”, while another would say, “We’ve got three.” They all saw giving time off as a badge of honour. I accept that it is easier for large organisations employing thousands of people to do that than it is for small businesses, but it is a challenge to try and ensure that being a councillor is an opportunity open for many people in all walks of life.

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As part of our process, we talked to young people, some of whom had been councillors and had given up. One reason was that young people start off, perhaps prepared to make a sacrifice about having a job, but eventually, they have to get a job, and the employer starts saying, “I’m sorry, time off really isn’t on—well, maybe we can find you half a day every fortnight.” They cannot really do the job in that regard. We heard from a councillor—I think she was a Conservative councillor—who said she was trying to get a job, and the jobcentre told her to take the fact that she was a councillor off her CV, because if anyone saw it, they would not employ her. That is really worrying. We ought to give proper attention to that, and the Government have to address it as well.

Councils can help councillors by providing better admin and clerical assistance. Again, there is a worry that such things get squeezed and scrapped when councillors are, understandably, trying to protect front-line services from cuts. We looked at what is happening in the Ministry of Defence. We made the following recommendation:

“The Ministry of Defence is giving serious consideration to the ways in which employers can be encouraged to support military reservists. The Department for Communities and Local Government should conduct a similar review. We recommend that the Government consult on how employers can be encouraged to provide support to their staff who serve as councillors.”

We are not saying that it has to be exactly the same as the MOD, but at least if the Government were out there saying to employers, “We think this is important. We think serving as a councillor in your community is something we should encourage people to do”, having that ministerial steer would be helpful. Do a review. Work with the LGA. At least recognise it as a problem, Minister, because it is a problem, as was clearly shown in our own evidence.

I am getting towards the end of my comments. We also raised the issue of allowances. Given the press comments and ministerial responses made initially about our report, one would have thought the only thing we said was that all councillors should be paid more. Actually, we did not say that anywhere in the report. We raised the issue of allowances because it was raised with us in evidence as a problem—it was an evidence-based report; that is what Select Committee reports are. We did not recommend, as I say, that allowances should be increased. We got the evidence clearly that councillors, in some cases, were not well paid.

We did not agree with the idea of having a national rate for councillors, because we recognise the big differences in the job that councillors do in different authorities, and in the jobs that various councillors do. However, we were generally persuaded that councillors had the right to expect an appropriate level of compensation for the time and loss of earnings. Both are important; it is about the time that councillors put in, often at weekends and evenings, but it is also about the time that those in work give up, and the loss of earnings as a result, which is often a risk.

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): To reflect on the speed-dating exercise that we did, the allowances came across as being a substantial sum of money. For someone who is very young, and perhaps not yet in their first job, it is a substantial payment, but for people in full-time work, the allowances were relatively modest. That is one reason why the analogy with reservists is particularly interesting.

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Mr Betts: The hon. Gentleman virtually anticipates my next point, which is that we met young people who were happy in that situation. Perhaps they had just been to university and were used to living on student loans and earnings. They had moved on to being a councillor and, as a first step in life—perhaps they had got some part-time work as well—that was okay. However, once they started to get permanent employment and to move up the income scale, being on the council suddenly caused them significant loss and, if they had got into relationships and had children, the loss was very off-putting and became a barrier. We talked to people who had joined a council at a relatively young age and, when they got to 30, they did not stand again or perhaps they did two terms and then did not stand again. That was a very serious issue.

We heard from councillors that they did not put up allowances because they were concerned about the public and press reaction, which is something that councillors have to live with, but we also heard that very often they did not put up allowances because there were enough people on the council who felt that they were okay. People with a private income or who were retired had no great incentive to put up the allowances. The people who were in work and relying on that money to replace lost earnings were in a minority, so they could not get an increase in allowances.

We therefore made two recommendations to the Government, but Ministers dismissed them and I am very disappointed about that. We said, “Look, Parliament has had this problem.” We had gone through all the traumas about how we fix our pay, so we said that the issue should be dealt with by an independent body. We said, “Set it up and then we have nothing more to do with the issue—hands off.” I think that the public understand that. Sometimes I think that Members of Parliament have a little difficulty understanding or appreciating it. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is not always everyone’s flavour of the month, but it is an important step for us to say, “We don’t decide our pay.” Why should councillors not be allowed to take that step if they want to do so? They can set up independent panels now to advise them, but we heard from one witness after another who said, “Yes, we had independent advice and a recommendation, but we felt we couldn’t accept it. It was all too difficult.” Why not at least give councillors the option to be able to delegate absolutely, just as MPs have done?

We suggested one other power, which I do not think councillors have now, not merely to give an allowance, but to give a loss-of-earnings payment. It could be capped; it could be limited; it could be instead of part of the allowance, but I think that the public will get it. If someone loses money and can show that they have lost money by being away from work to do their council work, why should they not be recompensed for that in a specific way that I think the public could understand? Ministers dismissed that and said, “The allowance is there. It gives people compensation.” It does not. We heard evidence from people on that.

The reality for most councillors is that once they start getting better-paid jobs, the allowance does not cover their loss of earnings, let alone anything for all the work that they do at the weekend and in the evening, which comes out of their family time. I do not know why Ministers cannot be a bit more relaxed about saying,

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“This is reasonable.” It used to happen previously, before the allowance system was brought in. It was possible to award loss of earnings then. I certainly received such payments when I first went on a council and I think that such a system would be useful if councils wanted to adopt it.

I say this to the Minister just in passing. We did not have before us the incredibly mean proposals about councillors’ pensions, which came after the Select Committee report. It is one thing to say to people, “Lose your family income or have less family income”—because it is family income, not just an individual’s income—“now as a councillor.” It is another to say, “Because you are off work and not able to pay into your pension scheme as much as you otherwise would have done, for ever and a day once you retire, your pension will be reduced as a result of the effort that you put in as a councillor—for being a councillor.” I just do not think that is fair. It is unreasonable. I can understand why the LGA and others have got very upset about that proposal. The Government could avoid that; they could row back from the proposal. It is another barrier for people who are in work and thinking about becoming a councillor.

As well as that comment from Ministers, there was the comment from the chairman of the Conservative party, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), on the “Today” programme when I was doing an interview in the studio. He came on and said, “Really, councillors shouldn’t be paid much, because they are volunteers; they are like scout leaders.” If councillors had been upset with the Government about other things, they were even more upset after that. I am thinking of the number of councillors who have made comments to me. The Minister has probably had similar comments from some of his colleagues in local government—he smiles at that—up and down the country.

That comment really upset people. One Conservative councillor gave this response, which was communicated to the Committee secretariat:

“it’s great to have a bunch of volunteers running everything but when you are responsible for a budget of over £900 million is this appropriate?”

Of course it is not. Of course councillors are not volunteers. They are doing an important public service and should be properly rewarded. Most councillors are not in it for the pay, but the idea that they are volunteers and scout leaders is not correct.

Then there was the other comment—I think that it came from Conservative Central Office—that it was

“a cynical and sleazy move by the Labour Party”

to put councillors’ allowances up so that the Labour party could cream a bit off the top and gain more money. Well, okay, if the Conservatives think that all members of the Select Committee are cynical and sleazy, I suppose that we will have to live with that. [Interruption.] Perhaps we will not. The idea that the hon. Members for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) and for Harrow East were not merely cynical and sleazy but involved in a plot with the Labour party to cream off money is a little too far-fetched for the chairman of the Conservative party to try to justify. I am sure that in the debate today the Minister will want to distance himself from those comments.

I have a challenge, which the LGA raised with me this morning, for the Minister. I refer to the lobbying Bill—the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning

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and Trade Union Administration Bill. Although it does not come under our report, it does affect the role of councillors. The LGA has said today that it is concerned. The legal advice that it has received is that the lobbying Bill as written could prevent councillors from engaging in campaigning and lobbying of Government in the year before the election; they could be caught by the rules. Can the Minister give an absolute assurance that that is not the case and, if there are any concerns, that he will talk to his ministerial colleagues to ensure that those concerns do not become a reality?

In our report, we have raised issues that are very important. We hope that we have started a debate about the important role of councillors, the challenges that they face in that role and the help that they can be given to perform the role better. We have looked at how we can deal with the gaps—the fact that councillors are not reflective of their communities. The responsibility in that regard is for parties as well as local government itself. We have considered the councillor’s role, how it is different in different authorities, the challenges for councils and the LGA, and the barriers to becoming a councillor. We have considered the challenges for employers, for councillors and for Government.

As the Select Committee said in the report, we want councillors to be

“at the centre of community life, well known and respected by those they represent, and empowered to effect change within their local areas.”

Democracy at all levels depends on the health of the councillor population. We hope that the Government will play their part in giving front-line councillors the support that they need.

1.57 pm

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke. By way of background, perhaps I should say that I served 26 years as a local councillor, which I know is more than people get for murder. It was a great privilege to take on that role. I saw it change over many years. I had the opportunity of serving on a district council, in a two-tier system, and when, thankfully, the county of Humberside was abolished, I was able to serve on one of the unitary authorities that replaced it, so I have seen the role from both perspectives.

I served as a cabinet member for six years in what was—I recall mentioning this before—a successful Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, elected to clear up a financial mess left it by the Labour party. Hon. Members may find some parallels with another situation. I came to the conclusion that, without doubt, unitary authorities were far superior.

I congratulate the Select Committee on producing this report, although I have to say that I have seen many like it before. Those reports have covered so many of the same subjects and come to similar conclusions, yet we still find ourselves in a very similar position, in terms of local authorities, to the one that we were in a few years ago.

Section 2 of the report is entitled “Localism and the role of councillors”. I support the Government’s determination to free up councils from the continuous moves towards more and more central direction— something that I experienced in the whole of the period

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for which I was a councillor. I sincerely hope that the Government will resist the temptation of more interference when they happen to disagree with what might be rather odd decisions coming from local authorities.

In principle, I support greater community involvement, but we must ensure that we retain decision making by democratically accountable authorities. It is tempting to create community groups and so on, and I can think of many good examples of those in my constituency, but the truth is that they are not entirely representative of the community from which they hail. I attended a meeting of the Haverstoe community forum in my constituency last month—30 to 40 dedicated people who wanted improvements to their local area. Those of us who have attended public meetings and the like over the years know that it is only when there is a really big decision, usually concerning planning or perhaps the closure of a school or hospital, that the community turns out in force. Otherwise, only a limited number of people are involved and they are certainly not representative.

If we are to attract people into becoming councillors, the job must be seen to be worth while. By that, I mean that there must be real opportunities to take decisions that affect local communities. Too often in the past 25 to 30 years, successive Governments of all persuasions have felt the urge to create more quangos of various descriptions, usually taking decision making away from democratically elected councillors. That is to be deplored and I hope to see gradual moves to change the situation. People want to get involved and shape their police service or local health services, for example. There are opportunities to do that, but there are limited opportunities to do it within the context of a decision-making authority.

We need accountability. There is a big row in my area at the moment, following a £25,000 increase in the salary of the chief executive of the local hospital trust. I would like to think that such things would be constrained, at least to some extent, if there was democratic accountability—looking at the rates of pay for council chief executives, perhaps that is a vain hope. Nevertheless, we must not undermine our local authorities by creating more bodies that have no electoral mandate.

If we give councillors real power and decisions to take, we stand a better chance of attracting people of quality to stand for election. Fascinatingly, there are two types of councillors: those who are fascinated by the political process, and perhaps want to climb the ladder and get to this place at some point; and the genuine community councillors. A marriage between the two provides the best service to the local community.

I, too, share the concerns about outsourcing highlighted in the report. Too often, there is an assumption, one way or the other, sometimes governed by politics, that either in-house or outsourced is better. In fact, there is no magic formula. I have seen good and bad examples of both, but where we do outsource, it is essential that elected members have control, can still raise issues on behalf of their constituents and have access to the performance evidence that shows either failure or success, or, as is more likely, something in between.

Mr Sheerman: I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Under the current constraints, many local authorities have to outsource. The all-party-supported Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 gives us opportunities to outsource to social and community

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enterprises. Should not we push in that direction? To do that—to return to the point the Chairman of the Select Committee made—we need to train councillors in how to handle that kind of relationship.

Martin Vickers: I agree that the types of organisations the hon. Gentleman mentions need to be involved in providing services and there needs to be adequate accountability. I shall come to training later in my comments, because I have certain reservations about some aspects of councillor training.

I turn to the structure of local government. Paragraph 30 is headed “Unitary authorities”. I have served in two-tier and single-tier systems, and I say unequivocally that unitary is by far the superior structure. My view, not widely shared, is that we should move to unitary authorities headed by an elected mayor, leaving, I hasten to add, parish councils as they are, because they play a vital role. A streamlined structure and an elected mayor—someone with their own mandate—who is recognisably in charge would provide a better service. Mayors could act as ambassadors for their local areas and, like Back-Bench Members, be another thorn in the side of Government, which will do no harm at all.

There are two unitary authorities in my part of the world, North Lincolnshire council and North East Lincolnshire council. I shall take North Lincolnshire council as an example, not necessarily because it is Tory controlled, but because of two recent examples of how effective councils can make a difference.

A major planning application has been grinding its way through the system for four years—the south Humber energy park by Able UK—and is now almost past its final hurdle with the Secretary of State. The local authority has handled it in an exemplary manner. It has assisted, but also taken on board fully the concerns of the local community. It held endless consultation events and, on the whole, the process was a model of how such things should be done.

More recently, in November last year, more than 500 redundancies were announced at the Kimberly-Clark factory in Barton-upon-Humber. Fortunately, the council played a major role in attracting a new business, Wren Kitchens, to the factory. There is now the possibility of 500 new jobs coming on stream over the next year, the company having initially taken on about 100 staff. Councillor Liz Redfern, leader of the council, and her team have played a major role in delivering that.

On the structure and the elections, I firmly believe in single-member wards. In Parliament, we rightly value the link between ourselves and our constituents, which is there partly because we are single Members for single constituencies. I compare our role with that of Members of the European Parliament, who are anonymous due to the list system and the vast areas they cover. There are arguments for and against all-out elections and elections by thirds.

Mark Pawsey: I particularly support my hon. Friend’s remarks about single-member wards. In a single-member ward, by definition, each councillor is responsible for fewer electors and the link is greater. I want to make a point in my remarks about the connection between the

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general public and their councillor. The general public will know their councillor in a single-member ward, but they often do not in a three-member ward.

Martin Vickers: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I entirely agree. The link between the elected and their constituents is vital and would be strengthened by single-member wards.

I was moving on to the arguments about whole-council elections or elections by thirds. Given a choice between elections by whole council and by thirds I would go for by thirds, but why not have half-council elections every two years? That would be sufficient to keep those in authority on their toes, mindful of an election not too far in the distance, but it would not be so unstable that it would not allow for policies to be introduced and developed.

The report mentions the political class, and the divide between the political class and “ordinary” people. Presumably, the political class is extraordinary, and I suppose we are, in one sense, because we have been consumed by the political process, and once bitten by the political bug we find it difficult to let go. If we allow local authorities more freedom, we will have more people getting involved.

Our local government system relies on a functional, vibrant, party political system and I have reservations about the role of local authorities in promoting democracy and elections because that is what the parties should be doing. It is yet another example of officials—the state, in the broadest sense—doing something that should be done by the voluntary sector, the voluntary sector being the political parties.

Mr Sheerman: May I push the hon. Gentleman on that point? We did not get a majority of women doctors easily. We first made doctoring, especially GP work, compatible with having a family and other responsibilities—flexible working. Some bus companies even changed their rotas, and we got more women bus drivers. We have not considered closely enough why we do not get enough bright women able to participate in their local democracy. Does the hon. Gentleman not think that that is a big failing?

Martin Vickers: I accept that there is a failing by the political parties to broaden their appeal to women and minority groups, but we should support and encourage them to do that, rather than have yet more interference.

The report mentions the voluntary and community sector as a hunting ground for potential candidates. Speaking as someone who spent 15 years as a constituency agent, I can assure Members that that ground has been hunted almost to death. One part of that hunting ground is the parish councils.

I remember once approaching a lady on a parish council and asking her, “Wouldn’t you like to move up to the district council? We need a candidate for your village.” She replied, “Oh no. It’s political. I don’t believe you should have politics in local government.” A couple of years later, however, she was elected to the district council as a Lib Dem, and I said to her, “Why? You said you didn’t believe in politics in local government”, and she replied, “Oh no. That’s why I joined the Lib Dems.”

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There are many important points in the report. There are constraints on the time that people can give, and it is important that local authorities bear in mind that most elected members do the work part time, alongside earning a living. The trend, much more noticeable in recent years, to have more daytime meetings is a deterrent to people becoming councillors. The Chairman of the Select Committee made the point about loss of earnings and allowances, and that is perhaps one way of compensating them, but if the self-employed want to get involved it is almost impossible for them to do so in normal working hours.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I strongly support my hon. Friend on that point. Throughout the 16 years that I was a councillor, I was also a self-employed barrister and the only way I was able to do that was because our local authority ensured that all its meetings were in the evening. My hon. Friend makes a hugely important point. The decision is in the power of council members.

Martin Vickers: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention in support of the case. If we are serious, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) said, about getting a cross-section of the community involved, it is vital that we do not make it more difficult for the self-employed, among others, to do so.

Mr Betts: Is it not just a bit more complicated than that? The Committee heard evidence from people who worked and preferred evening meetings but also from women with child care responsibilities who said they would prefer to have meetings during the day. We also heard from people on county councils who had to drive for two hours to, and from, a meeting who said that they did not want to finish at 10 pm and then have to drive home. There are different problems for different people, and that is a challenge.

Martin Vickers: I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee for highlighting that point. I do not pretend that there is an easy solution by any means. Traditionally, county councils have tended to have more daytime meetings, but I think that, on balance, that is a deterrent. I would obviously leave it to individual councils themselves to decide, but there seems to have been a move to more daytime meetings, which probably makes it more difficult for more people.

We have briefly mentioned training. Councillors should be trained—briefed—on changes to legislation and such things. That is vital, but I would rule out the talk about performance contracts. We, as elected politicians, are judged by the electorate. They ultimately determine whether we are a success or a failure, and that is how it should be left.

Councillors are—as the report says—and should be at the centre of community life, but we must give them the tools and the opportunities they need to do the job. They can be at the centre of community life only if they are the ultimate decision makers.

2.17 pm

Mr Steve Reed (Croydon North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Madam Chairman. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield

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South East (Mr Betts) and his Committee on their report. I am delighted to take part in this debate. It is very important to me, as I believe that I am the most recently arrived former council leader in the House. I also had the huge honour of serving as deputy chairman of the Local Government Association until I came here nine months ago.

From my experience, I can confirm what the report says: that the role of the councillor is changing fast. It is becoming much more demanding, not least because the expectations of citizens and Government are increasing at a time when resources are dramatically reducing in ways that no one involved in local government can remember in their professional lives. Councillors give up a huge amount of their time to help make their communities better places in which to live or work, and that causes, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East mentioned, problems for them in their work and home lives. I had the experience that he had also heard of: a councillor came to me when I was leader of the council in Lambeth and said that she had been told to remove her experience as a councillor from her CV to help her get a job.

If that is how the world views the role of the councillor, it behoves all of us involved in public life to help change that reputation and promote the truth of the matter, which is that the role helps develop skills and abilities that are of immense value elsewhere in individuals’ working lives. It would be good if more employers understood that and if the Government reinforced it, by treating councillors more like military reservists and perhaps promoting the idea that they should be given time off to carry out their important work.

I agree that we need a much more diverse and representative group of councillors representing our communities. We need more women, more young people and more people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. During my time as leader of the opposition in Lambeth, up until 2006, we ran a three-year programme that identified people from precisely those groups, offering them shadowing, mentoring and training, and supporting them to stand as councillors. We were delighted in 2006 when that bore fruit, with the biggest increase in BME representation anywhere in the country that year. That model has been used by all parties in other places but, sadly, it is not yet used everywhere. I commend the LGA for its work, through the Be a Councillor campaign, to extend such models.

To return to my point about the need to promote the positive role of councillors, I immensely regret that the Government are doing the opposite of what is needed by denigrating councillors’ work. Certainly the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government seems to take great delight in misleading people about the work done by councillors and insulting their work, which is enormously regrettable.

The Secretary of State’s proposal to abolish councillors’ pensions is nothing short of spiteful, especially given that he, as a Member of Parliament, is fully aware that he is very nicely sorted out in that respect. Councillors’ remuneration is certainly not excessive. The average payment to a councillor is £7,000 per annum. I do not think that that over-compensates them for their work and the time and potential income, if they are self-employed or employed, that they give up to carry out their important role.

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We certainly do not want a situation in which the only people who can afford to be councillors are the retired, people on benefits or the wealthy. We need more people who are working hard and have young families to sit on our councils and influence decisions affecting the whole community; we cannot have only some sections of the community being able to afford the time to be councillors, which means giving councillors some financial compensation for the time they give up.

How disappointing to hear the chairman of the Conservative party, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), compare the role of a councillor with that of a scout leader. Councils and councillors run multi-million pound organisations, employ thousands of people and are charged with transforming services in line with the disproportionately heavy cuts forced on them by the very Ministers who belittle and demean their work.

When the current comprehensive spending review was announced, it was disappointing to see the Secretary of State in effect fiddling the figures, in my view, by adding to the base sums of money that were never within local government responsibility in the first place before working out the percentage reductions. The purpose was of course to make the overall cut in funding for local authorities look smaller than it really is.

It is worth commenting that, in reality, local government is getting a bigger percentage cut than any national Department. The National Audit Office confirms that local government is the most efficient tier of government. We should look to local government to learn lessons, not demonise it to allow the national Government and national Departments to get away with smaller efficiencies than they could deliver.

Pretending, as I regularly hear Ministers do, that councils can lose what amounts to up to 50% of their discretionary funding without that affecting front-line services, through some kind of imagined and miraculous efficiency savings, is a ludicrous position to adopt and demeans those who mouth it. That would be a feat that no public service organisation has managed to deliver, and it is a fiction by Ministers that is worthy of nomination for the Man Booker prize. It should certainly not be thrown into a debate about the future funding and resourcing of vital public services on which our communities depend.

The need for localism is growing like never before. The Government like to talk local, but they often centralise decision making under a veil of language—the opposite of what they are saying. It is true that not only this Government but every Government I can remember have behaved liked that. I hope that if there is a Labour Government after the next election, they will genuinely seek to devolve power to local government, and localise it, in a way that we have not seen before.

Local government is finding out and identifying new ways to run public services that take account of the drastic reductions in public service funding over recent years. In my view, the business model for local government is bust: it cannot continue in the future in the same way as in the past, because the reduction in resources is so drastic. Funding has changed dramatically, and so too have the expectations of citizens, who want more choice over public services and want those services to be more

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responsive to their needs. We must face up to the fact that top-down public services have had negative consequences, including in sapping the self-reliance of some individuals who have become heavily dependent on them, so capping their aspirations to lead better lives. Many councils of all parties, recognising those points, are considering how to transform public services by empowering citizens and co-producing services with them in ways that better meet the outcomes that citizens and communities can define for themselves.

The 16 Labour councils that form the co-operative councils innovation network—one of the groups looked at by the Select Committee during its inquiry—are innovating in all sorts of ways. Edinburgh city council, which is run by a coalition between Labour and the Scottish National party, is considering a model of city-wide child care co-operatives that aims to reduce costs, but increase accessibility for parents across the city. Rochdale has mutualised its entire housing stock to give council housing tenants more control over how its housing is managed and how decisions about their lives are taken. The council that I used to lead, Lambeth, has just set up a youth services trust that aims to give more control to communities affected by the scourge of violent gun crime over the services and interventions that will make a difference in getting young people out of crime, steering their lives back on track and helping them become more productive citizens.

In all those cases, it is vital to engage citizens and harness their insights and views about the services that they believe will tackle the problems they face. That must be central to the reform of public services in years to come. I am afraid that councillors across the country, not parliamentarians, are leading that transformation, and Parliament will have to learn from local government how to make it happen. Given that situation now, I plead with Ministers to stop demeaning the role of members of local authorities or local councillors, because the job they are doing is potentially transformative for public services across the whole country.

In conclusion, I found a post on Facebook this morning from a councillor in the London borough of Lambeth, Councillor Christopher Wellbelove, which captures the generosity of spirit and the commitment that drives many of our excellent councillors across the country. With you indulgence, Mrs Brooke, I will read it. He wrote:

“A busy day at work for BT starting at 7am because I knew I needed to gain an hour to go and meet a constituent at 2.30pm…to talk through benefit over payments... Went back to work till 6.30 when I headed out to join other Labour members chatting to local people in the Clapham Manor Street area. Final went to see Edith”—

an elderly constituent who—

“wants me to help sort some stuff out for her which of course I’m already working on. We chatted for ages about her family, her history, her amazing life. When I became a councillor I knew I wanted to help make other people’s lives better. I never imagined how much I would become close to so many people in my community... Since being elected so much has happened but thank you Edith for reminding me tonight why I became a councillor…and why I want to carry on working hard for people just like you. I may be exhausted now but…every moment of today has been worth it.”

That is the kind of front-line councillor whom Ministers should be supporting and—please—not denigrating.

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2.29 pm

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke, though it is perhaps a source of regret that, for the first time in as long as I can remember, we have a local government debate in which you are not participating. It is a pleasure none the less to see you presiding over us instead.

I congratulate the Chair and the members of the Select Committee on the production of the report. I noticed that there are some useful and interesting statistical appendices, one of which demonstrates that some 46% of Members of this House have, at one time or another, served as local councillors, and I am one of that number. If we include those hon. Members who were present at the beginning of the debate, we will find that in the case of this debate we are up to 90%, but I do not want my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies) to feel at all embarrassed about that, for he is, none the less, an excellent Parliamentary Private Secretary and is doing a fine job of supporting my hon. Friend the Minister.

It is instructive and worth recognising that a high percentage of people have moved from local government to Westminster. That is a healthy thing—I would say that, wouldn’t I? However, I think that we would all say that. I agree with the hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) that there is real opportunity for a cross-fertilisation of knowledge between the two tiers. However, as will become apparent, there are other matters on which I do not agree with him. Nevertheless, he made a perfectly fair point, which we all recognise.

The report is useful. I had the pleasure of giving evidence to the Select Committee on behalf of my party, so I am in the odd position of being a participant both in the report and in the debate. There was an interesting exchange about how we make councillors more representative. I was elected to a London borough when I was just short of my 22nd birthday.

Mr Betts: A few years ago then.

Robert Neill: It was very recent, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says. Like me, he will remember that it was at a time when the Association of Municipal Corporations was still going. I had just qualified as a barrister, and I was doing criminal work in and around London and Essex, which comes back to the point that I made to my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) that a lot of us in those days were in full-time employment of one kind or another. As I was self-employed, I was not earning if I was not in court, so there was a particular pressure there. We dealt with it in our council—granted we were near London, so many of our councillors had to commute—by insisting that, save in very exceptional circumstances, the meetings were held in the evening. I accept that the situation varies from place to place, depending on geography and demography, but we have to adjust to that.

Throughout the time I was a councillor, I managed to hold significant positions of responsibility including the majority party’s chief whip—in a coalition at one point I might add—chairman of social services and environmental services and leader of the fire authority. As there was political will and agreement between all

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parts of the council, we all managed to carry out such functions without its becoming a full-time job, which is important.

I value the role of the councillors. That does not necessarily mean that I think that their actions should always be immune from criticism, but I value them and the role of local government. The point about the role of the councillor, and the whole added value that it brings, is precisely that it is not a full-time profession.

I had slight worries about the suggestion that we should remunerate councillors on the basis that they are, in effect, pursuing a full-time career, and I had even more worries about the gloss that some hon. Members and other commentators put on it, hence all the conversation around pensions and so on. The reality is that, whatever the level of commitment, that is not what it should be and not, I think, what the public wants it to be. That is not to say that we should not be professional and that people should not be recompensed for the moneys that they often sacrifice when they carry out such public service.

At a time when the public is sceptical of career politicians at any level, including those in this House, it would be wrong to send out a message that once someone goes on to a council, they do that full time, regardless of the size of the authority. Moreover, such a move would not reflect the reality on the ground that the size of local authorities and the commitment that members put in varies greatly. There is a world of difference between serving as a back-bench councillor on a small district council and serving as an executive mayor or the leader or a cabinet member of a unitary authority. We must accept that there is a range of differences, and that a national template cannot be imposed on them. An error that the earlier Councillors Commission made—I am glad to say that the report has not made it—was to try to impose national minimums for remuneration and so on. The Government are right to say that allowing councils to outsource their remuneration policies to an independent body—although it is useful to have such a body to advise—runs the risk that it does not then calibrate effectively to that change in local circumstances. We must always be honest and up front about that.

I accept that being a councillor was not always a selling point. When I was a barrister, my clerks did not generally put on what was the equivalent to the chambers website that I was a councillor, apart from those couple of occasions when I was instructed either to prosecute or defend members or officers of local authorities for breaches of the criminal law. I accept, therefore, that there is a bit of an issue, but people deal with that in a common-sense way.

It struck me throughout my time on Havering council, which was an authority that changed hands from time to time, that there was a certain refreshment or turning over of the membership without its being imposed in any hugely structured way. That is why our discussion about what the political parties can do to get a better representation of the community in councils was helpful, but it is right to come to the fairly nuanced conclusion that we cannot impose such a move from above. I passionately want to see more women and more members of our black and ethnic minority communities involved in public life. Although I know that I, as vice-chairman of my party, have a bit of work to do to help my

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colleagues achieve that, I do not believe that an imposed model works, not least because the way in which individual political parties operate varies. Some are more decentralised than others, and that is true of both the Conservative and the Liberal Democrat parties.

Imposing such a practice through quotas does not work. Furthermore, it is almost counter-productive, because it is important that someone should be able to say that they came to this House or to the council on their merit. They should be able to say, “People voted for me because they thought that I was the best candidate.” We do not want to undermine that at any level. That is why I am wary of too rigid an approach to remuneration and pensions. I do not want to get to a situation where a professional and often time-consuming piece of voluntary public service is treated as a career, but that would be the message that went out if we followed the route that is hinted at in some parts of this report.

Most members of the public would be surprised to find that councillors are members of the local government pension scheme—arguments relating to such membership can be made either way. Sometimes analogies are drawn with Members of this House, and we must take them on board when we discuss the matter. I am a member of the local government pension scheme, as most members of the London Assembly were, but I am now a retired member as my pension was frozen as soon as I left—I simply say that for the record. That was because the previous Government decided that the devolved bodies, of which the London Assembly was one, should have full-time salaried posts, so there is a distinction there.

Mr Betts: Generally, I find that I agree with the hon. Gentleman, apart from on pensions. If a councillor is not full-time but has to spend a day a week away from work—that is not unusual for many councillors—and therefore has to give up their pay from work and their pensionable element of that pay, they are effectively getting only 80% of their pension value for working for that week. Is it unreasonable to have a system that allows them to replace that element of lost pension provision by paying in to another scheme that simply reflects that situation and gives them that element, so that they do not lose out on pension for the time they have served on a local authority? Is that unreasonable?

Robert Neill: There are two things that we can think about that; I understand—superficially—where the view comes from, but there are things that we should look at. First, there is the question of entitlement to paid time off to enable people to do their work, which we ought to think about. Secondly, and this is something I had to think about as somebody who was self-employed, if I was not earning a fee, whatever percentage of that fee I might have put towards my pension arrangements, I would have to make up elsewhere.

What we can do, and this would be permissible under the Government’s proposal, is say that there is no reason why a councillor cannot put a portion of their allowances, which are set locally, towards a private pension. Then, of course, they could claim the tax relief, which is part of that process. So people are not prevented from making some provision.

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I accept that this is a difficult issue, but I think that there is a general feeling among the public that—if anything—we will have to be rather more cautious in our approach to pensions right across the public sector. That applies to Members of this House—our pension scheme is being revised, including for Ministers; the ministerial pension scheme is being revised—and it is happening to civil service pensions and to local government officers’ pensions. We cannot escape the fact that doing otherwise would send a message that is rather at variance with the general thrust of the approach towards pensions in the public sector. The Government’s actions are consistent with saying that, for a raft of reasons, we must recognise that we can perhaps no longer adopt the same approach towards pensions as we did before.

As I say, I accept that this is a difficult and controversial issue, and I have tried to use pretty moderate and non-partisan terms. I understand the arguments either way, but we have to be realistic about things.

As I have said, the great value of councillors is that they are not officers. I would not want—even by accident and inadvertence, if you like—to get to a stage where we do something else that reinforces the idea that councillors are part of the payroll. We would not make councillors more effective at being councillors by making them more like officers. The whole idea is that they are different and separate, and the fact that very often they have employment and experience in the private sector is part of the added value that they bring in as a different dimension to the council.

Mark Pawsey: On occasion, the role of the councillor is to call officers to account and there is sometimes a danger that councillors become too closely identified with the body on which they are a councillor.

Robert Neill: That is a perfectly fair point, and it applies right across government. I do not go as far as one council leader, with whom I served at one time, who said that his committee chairmen—we call them cabinet members now—were not doing their job if their officers and directors were not scared of them. I would not recommend such an approach, but there has to be a proper degree of distance; I think all of us would recognise that, because sometimes we have to make it clear that there is a dividing line of responsibility, and about where decisions are ultimately taken.

Mr Reed: I am grateful that we are benefiting from the hon. Gentleman’s vast experience of many levels and of several roles in local government. However, does he recognise my experience from a number of peer reviews of other authorities that I had the privilege to participate in? One of the reasons that some councils become unresponsive to the needs of their citizens is that they are too officer-led, and if the elected members are not around enough to ensure that the officers are responding to residents, they are not able to carry out their job. Some of the points that he is making would encourage elected members to be around less rather than more, and therefore they would be unable to make the difference that residents want.

Robert Neill: I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s proposition, but maybe not with his final conclusion, for several reasons. First, I am firmly of the view that

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the best councils are member-led and that good officers respond more effectively to strong member leadership, so having such strong leadership is in everybody’s interests. Secondly, however, that does not mean that we must have a massive professionalisation. I have already made the point that often there are differences in roles, for example, in London boroughs such as the ones with which he and I are best acquainted. There is the world of difference between the commitment of the leader and the cabinet, and that of a back-bench—let us say “frontline”—ward member. We have to recognise those distinctions and that is why a sensible, locally set form of allowances is a better means of going down that route, rather than moving towards some kind of quasi-salary, because those allowances can reflect particular circumstances.

I was a little surprised to read what is again a fascinating little tit-bit in one of the appendices of the report, about the growth of special responsibility allowances. Sometimes, they are not unreasonable to reflect things. Sometimes, however, I have had a suspicion that there has been a degree of what we might term “grade inflation” in the number of special responsibility allowances that are awarded. I notice that, according to the report, something like 53% of councillors have some kind of special responsibility allowances. I wonder what that would translate into here—300-plus Front Benchers of one kind or another in this House. I do not know, though; occasionally I suppose I could see attractions to that. Again, however, I think we understand that it is a question of getting a sensible balance and not abusing what is an important system.

I will just say one other thing that shows that I do not entirely follow Opposition Members. This Government should be judged not necessarily on words but on deeds, and the real thing that makes people decide to be a councillor and to stay a councillor is a belief that the job makes a difference. The issues that we talk about and how we recruit people are terribly important. My party is putting in work. I particularly want to mention the work done by the Be a Councillor campaign, which is a cross-party Local Government Association initiative; the work that we have done in the Conservative party through Women2Win and other groups; and the work of my friend, Councillor Clare Whelan, who is a former colleague of the hon. Member for Croydon North and who was recently appointed an Officer of the British Empire for her work on improving diversity in local government. All those things are important, but the key point is that people become councillors because they think that giving up their time to go and be there is worth while, because they think that their decision can make a difference to their community and the place where they live.

That is the key point and I believe that the Government firmly pass the test, because what we have done—in actions—is give, where there was not one before, a legal power of general competence: to remove what I think we would all agree now were overly prescriptive targets; to remove the comprehensive area assessment; to phase out ring-fencing; to change the approach to planning, neighbourhood planning and so on; to remove predetermination, which I think we all agree was a fetter on democratic accountability by councillors; and to remove what had become an over-intrusive standards board, although I have said in Westminster Hall before

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that we need to watch to ensure that that is not recreated through the back door. All those are positive, devolutionist and decentralist actions by the Government.

In defence of Ministers—both past and present—it is perfectly consistent to say that, although we believe in localism and we hand power back, that does not mean that Ministers—or Opposition Front Benchers for that matter, as national politicians too—are obliged to take a Trappist vow of silence. It would be objectionable if a Minister said, “I am not going to allow you to take that decision”, but that is not the case; that is not what we are saying. We are allowing local government to take more decisions, but if a local authority of any political persuasion makes a flawed decision, it must run the risk of criticism by Ministers or Opposition Front Benchers, just like anyone else in public life. I do not think it is at all fair to criticise Ministers on that account; it is the deeds, not the words, by which they should be judged.

Mr Reed: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for being so generous with his time. I commend the Government for what they did on abolishing much of the ring-fencing. That was one of the very best things that this Government have done, and it has made it easier in very difficult circumstances—circumstances that are partly the fault of this Government—to manage the reduction in resources. However, is the hon. Gentleman advocating—as I do—that the Government should now move on from that and adopt a much more thoroughgoing, total place model that looks at all the public resources being spent in a particular locality and at how those can be de-ring-fenced and made accountable to the local authority, also allowing local communities to have a bigger say over what those resources are spent on?

Robert Neill: I have always advocated a move towards greater pooling and collaboration on budgets, and of course the Secretary of State—both now and throughout his time in government—has done a great deal of work in pushing forward community budgets, which is part of the means of piloting exactly that approach. I think we can do more and believe that, regardless of political persuasion, we should all recognise that this is an ongoing process.

By its nature, government in this country, historically, has tended to be quite centrist and we have to move away from that, gradually. The Government have already done a lot in that direction. Successor community budget pilots will open up real opportunities to demonstrate, across Government, that this can work. However, I say, as somebody who served as a member of a strategic health authority, that we have to take on board that not all the partner agencies, to use the current fashionable term, with which local government has to work in matters such as health—I digress slightly to mention the return of public health powers to local government, which is another significant devolutionary measure that this Government have put through—have the same culture of democratic accountability and transparency as local government. It will be a real fight for those of us who identify with local government, as a sector, to ensure that our standards are applied in these new arrangements, not those of—let us say—rather more bureaucratically obscure approaches to the world. All of us in local government need to take on that fight, but there are real opportunities if we win it.

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This is a positive debate. I welcome the Select Committee Chairman’s giving us the opportunity to discuss this subject. Even if we do not agree about some matters, the commitment to local government across the House is clear, and that is important.

I was impressed by the methodology set out in the report. The idea of speed dating fascinated me. A councillor attended a constituency surgery in Chislehurst with me and we went to the local pub afterwards, just to compare notes and check that we had everything in order. We were congratulating ourselves on what we thought was our good name and face recognition, until I noticed that we were sitting at a table above which was a sign that read “Over-40s speed dating tonight”. I hope that the methodology has not caused too many difficulties for the Select Committee. It is a worthwhile report. If someone does not have a sense of humour, they should not go into local government.

2.52 pm

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Brooke.

This is an excellent report—but I would say that, because I am a member of the Select Committee. As always, under the inspired chairmanship of the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), we ensured that we agreed things unanimously and did things based on consensus. That is the spirit in which we should approach this report and the role of a councillor in modern-day life.

Prior to coming to the Chamber, I was in the Tea Room discussing this debate with a colleague who said, “The problem is that I used to be a councillor and used to run weekly surgeries, and no one would turn up. Since I have become an MP, my weekly surgeries have been packed and almost all the people are coming to see me about local authority matters.” That brought out the dilemma that we all face.

I want to pose some challenges beyond the report, to an extent, and answer some important issues. First, what is the barrier to becoming a councillor? Why do people do this? I spent 24 years as a Brent councillor, including four years on the London assembly, and served on the fire authority, so I have reasonably wide experience. I served in a position in the London borough of Brent in which I lived through every possible form of administration, bar none.

I will not go into the wacky world of London borough of Brent politics, but suffice it to say that in the 1980s, when I was first elected, committee meetings were jam packed to the rafters, with standing room only in the council chamber. Now, they are lucky if they can get the local reporter to turn up, let alone any members of the public. We have disconnected the public from local authorities in many ways. That is a bad thing, which has happened over many years.

People become councillors for one of three reasons. First, it is often because they have a passion for one or more local issues, which are really about their local area, not even about the borough, and they want to see change and make things happen for their local people, which is laudable. Sadly, those people often become rapidly disillusioned. We found during discussions that

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a number of councillors serve a single term, and we lose their expertise that they have built up, because they have got frustrated and no longer wish to serve their local community. We have to deal with that in a big way.

Secondly, there are the political zealots—the people who have an axe to grind about the politics—who join. They are probably lobby fodder for whoever is running the council or is in opposition. They have a political axe to grind and will do anything in that respect. Sadly, many of those continue in councils year after year and often, in my experience, poison the atmosphere on all three sides in the main political groups.

Thirdly, there are the people who want to get on and do something else, either to become leaders in the council and take on executive roles or go on somewhere in politics, sometimes using local authorities that are known to be safe for Labour, the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats as a means to get into Parliament or some other representative body. Often, those people are very talented and progress rapidly through the ranks, but they are always—I have to say it: here is the pointer—out for what they can achieve and the kudos they can gain during the short period when they are serving, which is, I think, a great frustration.

There are clear barriers. One problem is the change from the old committee system, where every vote and argument was made in public and every councillor serving on that committee had to justify their vote to members of the public observing what they said, to the cabinet system or strong leader, or mayoral, model, where all the decisions—let us be clear about this—are taken in private and then rolled out in public to be rubber-stamped. That prevents political groups from reining back on political decisions that have been taken.

One of the opportunities of the committee system was that officers presented reports and political groups could take a view on those, and then a debate would follow, after which a decision could be made. Often now, with a cabinet system, such reports are endorsed by the political group and the individual member on the cabinet; it is then difficult for people to change their mind about a decision that has been taken, when they find out that the public do not like the decision. As a result of that, many people are now put off from becoming councillors, because they do not want to serve on a local authority.

There is a difference between executive councillors, who are either full-time councillors or significantly part-time members, and back-bench councillors—call them front-line councillors, or what you will—who are often struggling for a role. I concur with the Committee chairman: in Sunderland we saw that, clearly, a lot of work had gone on to ensure that all councillors saw that there was a benefit in their role.

The only drawback in allowing councillors power over spending money is pork barrel politics, with people saying, “I’ll spend some money in your area, provided that you get votes for me, come the election.” Local politics has been fraught with such difficulty over many years, with suspicion that particular organisations have received funding in return for votes. There is a big risk in such an approach. Although the sums are relatively small, they can have a significant effect. That is not a reason not to do it, but there have to be controls in place to ensure that this is truly beneficial for the local community,

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and truly acceptable measures have to be in place. The process has to be seen to be transparent, auditable and appropriate.

On training councillors, one problem is that many members do not have much experience of public life, really, when first elected. They come on to the council for a reason—we have talked about that—and local authorities, in the main, give them a quick briefing and say, “Good luck, you’re on your own.” That is the risk.

We need proper training programmes throughout a councillor’s career that are appropriate to their individual needs, and we neglect that far too often. As several hon. Members have said, having member-led, member-controlled councils with members who are experts in their field, who can take decisions and who can get officers to do what the community wants, is beneficial to the officers, the community and the wider public. Far too often, such training is neglected.

One of the problems that we always had when managing budgets was that it was very easy to cut a training budget—whether training for officers or for members, it did not really matter. People would always say, “Let’s cut the training budget, because we do not need it.” Actually, training and education should always be invested in, because that is the way to get better officers, better councillors, better decisions and better value for money. I would caution against the cutting of training budgets.

On the structure of councils, I will share the current experience in Harrow to show the problems of the current cabinet structure. Harrow has 63 councillors. There are five individual councillors—a rag-bag of various types—25 Conservative councillors, 25 Labour councillors and eight independent Labour councillors. That makes it difficult to have a strong leader model.

People might be surprised to learn that, of the eight independent Labour members, the leader of the council is independent Labour, six independent Labour councillors are members of the cabinet and the mayor is an independent Labour councillor. So all of them have executive positions, yet they form a small minority of the council. That is the problem of the current structure of local government, in which minorities can take huge control because they are the balance between the major parties. That is an extreme example, but it can happen and I think it is one of the drawbacks of the current system. That is one of the reasons why we need to redress the structure back to a more committee-based system, rather than the cabinet system. That is my personal preference.

Another issue is remuneration and whether councillors should be full time, part time or volunteers. My view is that there is a difference between people who lead a council, or who hold an executive position, and those who are critiquing or being a front-line councillor. The fact is that leading a council is a full-time job.

When I was the leader of a council back in the early 1990s, I had a full-time job. I would go into the council first thing in the morning to ensure that everything was hunky dory, and then I would go off to work. I came back at 6 o’clock and never left the council before 11 o’clock, which without question affected my career. People said, “Oh, you are not really committed to the job you are doing.” During that time the most I ever got in a single year for that service was the princely sum of some £1,300. I knew what the position was when I took

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it on, but we should recognise that people are doing that sort of job, which is a strain, and they should be properly remunerated for doing it.

Given the electoral cycle, and given that someone can be in the role at one moment and voted out the next, we must have a position on whether they are protected with a pension and, potentially, redundancy payments. We have gone from a position in which people volunteered for the council and, to a certain extent, were recompensed for a small amount for their time—their expenses, telephone bills and, if they had them, care costs were probably paid for—to a position in which they have an allowance as a councillor and special responsibility allowances on top of that.

However, there has never been a job description, a contract of employment or a position on redundancy and what happens at the end of a term. Pensions were never mentioned. It was always ad hoc. We have gone from people being complete volunteers to being full-time employees, but they are not really full-time employees. That is something that successive Governments and regimes have failed to address. We have to bite the bullet and do something about that.

The make-up of councils is a real problem. The numbers of both women and ethnic minority people are not representative of the community. As the Chairman of the Select Committee said, the average councillor is white, male and aged 60, which cannot be right because it is not fully representative of our community. It is incumbent on political parties to make that change. I am pleased to say that, come the local elections next year, of the 27 proposed candidates in my constituency 11 are women and 18 come from minority ethnic communities, and that number could be stretched further if people from certain other minority communities are included. That shows that we are trying to make a change at local level ourselves.

My concern is that after the 2006 local elections—I cannot speak for the 2010 local elections—the London boroughs of Brent and Harrow represented 40% of ethnic minority councillors in the whole of London. In London, which is probably the most ethnically diverse city in the world, it has to be bad news that councillors across our boroughs are not representative of the communities they face. I commend the hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed), the ex-leader of Lambeth council, on the steps taken there in 2010. That is good news, but we are woefully short of both women and ethnic minority councillors.

Most people, if challenged to do so on the doorstep, are unable to name their councillors. That is a problem faced by councillors across the board. Talking to communities in community languages is all-important, and representing those communities is difficult for people who do not understand such community languages. Often, the people who need help have difficulty speaking English—they always have English as an additional language—and therefore having councillors who can speak those community languages is terribly helpful for representing them in the council, for understanding their problems and for dealing with the ward work that follows. That issue needs to be addressed with appropriate action from the political parties, rather than from the Government.

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There is also the issue of councillors as the leaders of their communities. One of the thrusts under the previous Government was to get to a point at which councillors spent more time in their community talking to residents’ groups, charities, community groups and so on. In my experience, the problem has been that there is then a disconnect between councillors understanding what the council does—inputting into and critiquing the work of the council—and connecting with community groups. My personal opinion is that that has not worked wonderfully well, and a lot more work needs to be done by individual councillors, assisted by the councils, to understand that things have to change and that councils have to be representative of the area.

I am concerned that in London we have all-out elections every four years. In the London borough of Harrow, regardless of the results of the election, we are expecting a huge turnover of councillors. More than 50% of councillors will be new, which creates a political vacuum and an opportunity to train people in the right sort of way that encourages them to be councillors in the right sort of vein.

It is incumbent on local authorities to have a proper training programme for those councillors now so that it is ready to go when people are elected. From my experience across London authorities, I am not convinced that a proper induction programme is prepared for such councillors. That needs to change. Without doubt, without such a change discontent will continue to build up, with people saying, “It isn’t worth being a councillor, so I am going to give up.”

[Mr Joe Benton in the Chair]

I have one last challenge, which is not in our report. Given the changes that have been made to the roles of executive councillors, who make decisions, and councillors on the front line, who represent their wards, we should perhaps reduce the number of councillors overall, rather than having large numbers of councillors and large councils right across unitary and all sorts of other authorities. We should pay councillors better, reward them appropriately and give them the support they need, but we should reduce their numbers, because if we make them more professional, more involved and more effective, we will need fewer of them. That might be controversial, and some people may not agree, but local authorities all over the country are starting to reduce marginally the number of their councillors. However, a marginal, creeping approach is perhaps not sufficient, and we may need radical action to introduce such a change.

Mrs Brooke—sorry, Mr Benton; the Chairman has changed during my speech.

Robert Neill: That is the effect you have.

Bob Blackman: Yes, I know. Mrs Brooke is gone—she could not stand it any longer.

In summary, Mr Benton, this is an excellent report. The Select Committee has put in an awful lot of work and collected an awful lot of evidence, so the report is worthy of lots of action. There is further work to be done: we have to transform local government so that it

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is, in the right way, at the forefront of decision making. The report is a welcome step, but it is not the end of that transformation; it is more like the end of the beginning.

3.11 pm

Mark Pawsey (Rugby) (Con): It is a great pleasure to speak in the debate. Like many Members who have spoken, I am a former councillor, although I feel rather inadequate in the face of the long service of all the other Members here, having served as a councillor for only five years.

I became a councillor in 2002, and it was easy for me to do so, because I did not have a boss to ask permission from. I was running my own businesses, and like other Members, I found it easy to allocate time to being a councillor. I sat on a district council, and the majority of meetings were in the evening, so it was easy for me to attend. At no stage did I contemplate putting my name forward for a county council, given the number of daytime meetings and the time commitment they would have involved.

I am pleased to make my contribution as a member of the Select Committee, and I pay tribute to the Chairman for pulling the report together in a way all members were able to support. Listening to the debate, I was reminded of the evidence sessions we held—almost 12 months ago now. We had a number of formal evidence sessions, but I got most out of the more informal sessions, and particularly the speed dating, which was much to the interest of my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill). It was extremely valuable to be able to meet people who would not normally give evidence in the very formal Select Committee setting. It was particularly valuable to speak to people who had contemplated becoming a councillor, but who had chosen not to do so, because there is no body representing them.

As an aside, let me say there is some merit in making more use of informal evidence sessions in the Select Committee system. We get to speak to people on more of a one-to-one basis and to hear their views without their needing to be concerned about going into the House of Commons, sitting behind a desk with microphones and being interrogated by Members of Parliament. We got an awful lot out of the less formal sessions, and the Chairman is looking at doing more informal sessions, because we generally get more out of them.

The report is important because the councillor’s role is important, and councillors enable councils to do their work well. We need to encourage more people to put their names forward, and I want to talk about the role of the political parties in that.

I come from an area with a two-tier authority. The first tier across much of my constituency is parish councils. Parish councils are, of course, not political, and people with an interest in the community will put their names forward for parish councils. However, at district and county level, the councils are run on party-political lines. I do not know the statistics, but a significant proportion of councillors on county and district councils are from the established political parties, although I suspect there are more independent members on district councils than on county councils.

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We need to make it easier for people to become councillors. In the main, the way to do that is through our established political parties. My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst is doing work on that in the Conservative party, and I am sure the same kind of work is being undertaken in the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties. The role of the parties in encouraging people to come forward must be brought out. Perhaps the parties should come together and put together a uniform campaign to explain why people should become councillors.

Another issue raised in the report is the need to encourage people with broader experience of life—particularly people with experience of senior roles in the community—to put their names forward. If we look back two or three generations—we often see this when we visit council offices, because there are photographs of past mayors and past councils on the walls—we see that business leaders, head teachers, accountants, lawyers and other professional people with experience of senior roles were actively engaged in local politics. One concern is that we are not encouraging that cohort to come forward, and those people often see the council’s role through a negative lens, rather than a positive one. As has been said, it is distressing to hear of councillors being encouraged to take the fact that they are a councillor off their CVs; that is a matter of great concern.

The Chairman of the Select Committee drew attention to the fact that the average age of a councillor is now 60, that only 31% of councillors are women and that 96% of councillors are white. On the age range, we have discussed the fact that the role can be attractive to somebody who is straight out of university; for them, the allowance is relatively large, and somebody who is young and perhaps living at home can use it as their primary source of income. However, as people move into jobs that are more demanding of their time, and particularly when they have children, it becomes difficult for them to get involved—my children were reasonably old before I felt able to put time into becoming a councillor. Parents may, therefore, be particularly under-represented among councillors.

In written evidence to the Committee, Professor Colin Copus made an interesting European comparison. It turns out that Spain’s councillors are the youngest, with a mean age of as low as 45. We then go up the table through Switzerland, Italy, Greece, Austria, France, Germany and Sweden, before we get to the UK at the very top, with an average age of 59. We really need to focus on those in the middle years of their careers and to make it interesting for them to come forward.

How might we do that? Clearly, we need to ensure that people are not put off by the prospect of becoming a councillor. There is a real lack of understanding of the time that being a councillor takes up. We have spoken about training, and I recognise the need for it, but one thing I was aware of, particularly in the early years of being a councillor, was the massive number of briefings, which take up an awful amount of time. Even when we become more experienced as councillors, we are still dragged along to many meetings that are perhaps not necessary. I recognise, as the hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) said, that councillors need to be actively involved in the council, but far too often, councillors go into meetings that are not particularly significant or valuable, and they come away thinking, “Did I really get anything out of that?”

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One thing that is a real turn-off for people thinking about becoming a councillor—we, as parliamentarians, are responsible for this—is the bickering and the Punch and Judy nature of politics. Parliament often does not represent itself well. Many people’s only awareness of national politics is what they see in Prime Minister’s Question Time on television. They see the bickering, and it does not encourage people to come forward.

We have heard a fair amount about the under-representation of women in councils. I should be interested to hear the view of the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), but I think women are particularly put off by the bickering that sometimes happens in a council chamber. We all support robust debate, but sometimes it goes too far.

Helen Jones (Warrington North) (Lab): I hear that point made frequently. Anyone who has seen women council leaders in the north-west would probably not think that. The real drawbacks are meeting times and the lack of child care. I had my child when I was a councillor and I had to go back a week later, because it was a hung council. Those are the things that need attention. The idea of a different political mindset among men and women is overplayed.

Mark Pawsey: My evidence may be anecdotal, but it comes from two councils that I know of. One was quite antagonistic, and women were under-represented. The other was in Rugby and it was rather more gentle, partly, I felt, because power had gone through different groups and coalitions so we worked more consensually. I thought it was a more attractive council chamber to be involved in, and we had a far larger proportion of women. I simply make that observation.

We need to give councillors real power. The Localism Act 2011 has been mentioned. For far too long, all councillors did was rubber-stamp policy that came from Government. I remember having Hobson’s choice about what action to take. Not doing what the Government wanted would mean not getting the grant that would enable something to happen. Under the current cabinet model, cabinet members have executive power and are actively involved in the council; but council back benchers have little role. They sit on scrutiny committees and can make recommendations, but it is hard to get things done. That is why the Government should be applauded for the 2011 Act, which gives power back to councillors and councils. I hope and expect that the additional powers that councils have will lead many people with more senior roles in the community to put their names forward.

I want to consider the accessibility of councillors. Often, particularly in a two-tier authority, people do not know which councillor is responsible for what, and often they will therefore not go to their councillor to solve a problem. It has been mentioned that MPs get letters about potholes, roads, road lighting, parking and planning—things that are not within our control—and we should tell those correspondents “Go to your local councillor, who is someone who can deal with that.” My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) made a valuable point about multi-member wards, where the disconnect is even greater. With single-member wards, an effort to convey to people the responsibilities of their councils, and councils that made themselves more accessible,

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things would work better. I was interested by the remarks of the hon. Member for Croydon North, who spoke about a councillor’s satisfaction at solving a problem. We can all identify with that, but it struck me that the benefits matter in question was more likely to be a national issue than a local council one. That is the reverse of the experience I have been describing, which is probably more the norm.

We have had a useful report and debate. I hope that we have recognised the important and active role that councillors play, and that some of our recommendations will be taken forward.

Mike Weatherley (Hove) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the local press has an important role to play? Brighton and Hove councillors do an enormous amount of good work which perhaps is not much reported in the press; they do not have the prestige that goes with that.

Mark Pawsey: My hon. Friend is entirely right, and my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) also referred to the community’s lack of interest in the work of the council. Ultimately, I suppose, the newspapers would say, “If people want to read about it, we will print it,” but it is important for councils to give them information. We know the pressures that newspapers are under; if councils can put the information in a valuable form there is a greater chance that the local papers will use it.

Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): My local newspaper, The Huddersfield Daily Examiner, is tweeting from a planning meeting at Kirklees council, which reminds me of the fact that a couple of the new councillors are professionals in their 40s who run their own businesses. There they are, having to give up a whole day, potentially, of paid work, to work on behalf of their community and make the right decisions on a planning committee. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to think about how to get people of that age group—professionals who are still working—making such important local decisions?

Mark Pawsey: Absolutely. My hon. Friend has identified how councillors are adopting new methods of communication to make certain that their residents know exactly what hard work they are doing.

We have had a valuable debate and, I hope, recognised the role of councillors. I look forward to the remarks of the Minister and shadow Minister.

3.26 pm

Helen Jones (Warrington North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I congratulate the Select Committee on an interesting and worthwhile report and on the innovative methods it used to get evidence. I also congratulate the Committee on securing the debate. We have had an interesting discussion, with thoughtful speeches from Members on both sides, whose experience of local government was evident.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) made it clear, in opening the debate, that we need to understand how the role of a councillor is

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changing, and the greater demands that are made now. He also explained the need for a different mindset in some councillors, and different ways of engaging with the community. He raised the interesting issue of why people do not stand for election to the council. We heard several reasons, but one is simply confidence. We must demystify local government. I have asked people in community groups and my trade union why they do not run for the council. They say, “I can’t do that,” and I reply, “You represent the community now, don’t you? You take up issues on people’s behalf. You have the skills.” We must get over to people how important that experience is.

The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) made some important points about the ability to take decisions. Improving the quality of representation in local government is also about giving local government the right to make some proper decisions. It is a chicken and egg situation. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed) made an important point about how expectations are increasing while resources are being reduced, which creates a dilemma for all councillors. The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) talked about getting people in employment to participate—and about the need for a sense of humour, which is also essential in this place. A good friend of mine used to say, “You should always take your politics seriously, but you should never take yourself too seriously.”

The hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), in a thoughtful and considered speech, drawing on his experience, talked, as did the hon. Member for Cleethorpes, about adapting to the cabinet system in local government, and the need for training for councillors. The hon. Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) discussed how to encourage people to come forward and about the need, mentioned by other hon. Members, for councils to consider their own procedures—to think about when they hold meetings and whether some of them are unnecessary.

When I was first elected to this place, I was always being invited to briefings by local government officers. Eventually, I said, “Put it on paper. I can read. If there is anything I want to ask you afterwards, I will tell you. If anything is unclear, I will let you know.” Someone could quite easily spend the whole time going to briefings with the same small group, but hardly ever interacting with constituents. That is something we all need to avoid.

The Select Committee and those who have spoken today have all made important points about the change in the role of councillors, the greater demands on them and the wider political and social context in which they now operate. Times have changed. We no longer have a system in which MPs go back to their constituency once a quarter, hold a surgery and go away again. Similarly, for local councillors it is no longer simply a matter of getting elected and waiting until they have to stand again. Local government could have a vital role to play in bridging the gap that has developed between people in the community and politicians. Councillors could be central to that, if we get it right—but it is important to get it right.

We have to recognise, as was said earlier, that the scale of the cuts to local government funding instituted by the Government has made it extraordinarily hard for local councillors to deliver the services that they know

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are needed. Even the Local Government Association, which is Conservative controlled, has estimated that the gap will be £16.5 billion by 2019. Furthermore, in those areas most in need, the cuts are relatively bigger: the 10 most deprived local authorities in the country are taking cuts six times greater than the 10 least deprived. In such circumstances, it is right to pay tribute to local councillors throughout the country, who are struggling to square the circle and having to take unpalatable decisions every day. Before I go any further, I want to put on the record my appreciation of their work.

The thrust of the Select Committee report is, rightly, about looking to the future. We need to ensure that people from all sections of the community contribute to decisions about that community. It is vital that we encourage more young people, more people from minority ethnic communities and more people of working age to become councillors. As has been said frequently, the average age of councillors is now 60. I am sure that lots of them are doing a good job, but councils need to look more like the communities that they serve. We need to ensure that that happens.

In visits around the country, I have been fortunate to meet some excellent young local councillors—in particular, some excellent young women, some of whom I am sure will go on to become council leaders in future. In my own constituency, I am fortunate to see a number of good younger people putting themselves forward to stand as councillors and to go on our party’s panel. “Younger”, however, is a relative term. I often describe people as young, only to realise that they are married, settled and with a couple of kids; they are not that young in the overall sense. We need to encourage such people—more parents and parents of young children.

I have a story to tell about when I was first elected to the council. I was single, but got married during that time and gave birth to my son. As I said earlier, I had to be back early, and I remember asking the officers, “How do I get a pram up there in that building, if I need to?” The officer looked at me as if the words “pram” or “baby” were in a foreign language—“Why would you want to do that? We have never had it before.” The answer is, “Well, you have got it now.” Councils have got to adapt their procedures to accommodate the people whom we want to be on the council, not the other way about.

In the north-west, we have—and, I hope, will continue to have—some good women council leaders, such as in Burnley and Lancashire, which spring to mind. I remember when Lancashire was run by a formidable trio of women: one is now my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman); its chair of social services became my hon. Friend the Member for the then constituency of Blackpool North and Fleetwood; and its chair of education is now Baroness Farrington.

That was an extraordinarily well run council, with a trio of formidable women at the top—but that is rare, an exception and why we remember it. That is not how things should be. Not enough young people or women are coming forward to be councillors, and we all as political parties must take responsibility for tackling that, changing the culture inside our parties to get more people from all sorts of walks of life to participate.

The Committee rightly highlights the needs of councillors in employment. I am sad that the Government chose to ignore some of the recommendations in their response,

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because we need to convince employers—as someone said earlier—of the benefits of having a councillor staff member, because of the skills that people pick up and the knowledge of the community that they gain, which can be of huge benefit to the employer, not a burden. It needs to be seen as such. There are problems in small businesses and so on, and we must strive to overcome that. It is not easy, but unless we tackle the problem, we simply will not have a representative local democracy, which is vital to us all.

The report also highlighted the need for proper training and support for councillors, who after all are doing a difficult job, making decisions that affect people’s lives and spending millions of pounds of public money. Political parties, councils and representative bodies such as the LGA all have a duty to make that happen, through training for people before they become councillors and ongoing training afterwards, so that they have the necessary knowledge and skills to carry out their duties. I agree with what has been said in the debate: if we do not train councillors properly, we get officer-led authorities, instead of member-led authorities, which is bad for democracy.

The Government have said, rather foolishly, about councillors, “They are all volunteers; we do not want to professionalise them.” The argument about training, however, is not about whether someone is a full or part-time councillor; it is about whether someone has the knowledge and skills to do the job properly. Training is not about professionalising the role—we can have all those arguments about who needs to be full time and who does not, and I agree with the hon. Member for Harrow East that leaders of local authorities, certainly the big ones, are in effect full time—but about ensuring that duties are carried out effectively. Roger Bannister was not a professional runner, as the Minister might remember, but he still needed to be trained properly to run a sub-four-minute mile. It is the same for everyone else.

Allowances are much more contentious. All councils must bear in mind that at the moment most people’s incomes are being restricted, while their standard of living is falling. In the longer term, yes, of course it is right—we need a system that does not deter people in employment from standing for the local authority. I, too, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East, remember when councillors got loss of earnings, but councils now must bear in mind the economic situation. We do not want to argue that there is one rule for constituents and another rule for the political class, whether amateur or professional—if we can make that distinction, which I do not think we can.

Most of all, we need to accept the role of local councillors in making decisions that are right for their local communities. I agree with what has been said, but the Secretary of State is sometimes what might be described as conflicted. On the one hand, he says that he is in favour of localism, but, on the other, he cannot stop interfering, whether about bin collections, parking on double yellow lines or what he described recently as the scourge of bin blight. He has to find another scourge every week—I am a little concerned about him.

Talking about localism is not enough, however; the Secretary of State has taken a lot more power to himself. The Local Government Finance Act 2012 gave him huge powers, while the Local Audit and Accountability

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Bill will even give him power to decide what councils publish—“Pickles the censor”, up there with his blue pencil, deciding what fits with his code. That is despite the fact that there have been few complaints about council publications. We all know that most of them simply say when the tea dance is going on, what is happening at the sport and recreation centre, and so on.

In contrast, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) made it clear that we want radical devolution of power to local communities, including power over transport, infrastructure, skills and economic development. However, that devolution of power will make it even more incumbent on local authorities to ensure that they have councillors with the right skills who are representative of their community. It is a chicken and egg issue: as more power is devolved, more people will be interested in standing for local authorities, but we must ensure that those authorities are truly representative of their communities and that councillors are properly trained to carry out their role. Otherwise, we will let down the very communities that people hope to serve.

The Select Committee has made a thoughtful and constructive contribution to the debate and I welcome that. The debate will continue. As the hon. Member for Harrow East said, there is much more work to do. If we are honest, there is much more work to do throughout all political parties to try to get it right. Local councils can play a vital role in re-engaging our communities with the political process, allowing them to see how they can influence what happens and the decisions about their lives. We neglect them at our peril because they can be a bridge back to community engagement with politics as a whole.

I hope that the Minister will say something positive about the Select Committee’s report and how we go on from there because it has done a very good job, on which it should be congratulated.

3.41 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): It is a pleasure, Mr Benton, to serve under your chairmanship, as it was under our previous Chair. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) on securing this debate, and the entire Committee on putting together the report. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is right that there are some elements on which we do not see eye-to-eye, but it is important and a rich result that it has brought the debate into the public domain and raised the profile of the great work that thousands of councillors do and have done throughout the country over the years. We are having a proper debate about the position of councillors and their role and that of councils in the future.

The work to keep up momentum in considering that role is hugely important, and necessary to ensure that we maintain and develop a skilled, enthusiastic and effective group of councillors throughout the country who are drawn from a wide range of backgrounds. Hon. Members have touched on that today. We need councillors to operate effectively to meet the ever more complex demands of the future in serving of their electorate and communities.

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Like others here, I come from a local government background and I clearly remember the tap on my shoulder from a Conservative councillor—unfortunately, he is no longer with us—who explained that if I stood for the council, it would be really helpful and I would be serving my community. He used the classic words that many of us have heard, or even said, that it will take only a couple of hours once a week, if not once a month, over the next few months. I stand here today as a result of that.

Being a councillor and being part of fixing the pothole and making someone’s life better today and tomorrow is a fantastically rewarding job. Politicians at all levels should be more honest about that and publicise the fact that we are fortunate in our jobs and in serving our communities. It is right to do what we can to raise the profile of how that empowers our communities and how we can be involved and lead our communities. The Localism Act 2011 played a large part in moving that forward and will strengthen it in the time ahead.

I hope that, in the next few years, we will see a growing understanding by people and councils of what powers people can use to benefit and work for their communities. That will help ensure that more councils are member-led instead of officer-led. I think hon. Members in the Chamber agree that we must ensure that the powerhouse of our local democracy is led by elected officials.

The hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) was right when she said that it is important that local councils have a good cross-section of people from all types of background and of all ages. I was proud that, when I was a council leader, I developed a group that included the youngest councillor in the country at the time when the age limit changed, and a brilliant councillor who is well into his 70s. They performed a great service in a council with an even spread of men and women.

Councils today recognise that things are changing. An example was given of a pram, and the same occurred with the introduction of disability discrimination legislation. Councils must move forward and provide. My successor on the council I led has just had her first child and has managed to ensure that she can continue as leader. Obviously, she will take maternity leave, but the council will remain member-led, and someone’s sex or age will not stop that.

Referring to something my hon. Friend Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) said, I was leader of my council for five years and I ran a business full time, but I was the leader of a relatively small district authority in a two-tier structure. I highlight that because it picks up a point made by hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), that there are many different sorts of council, of different sizes and make-up—unitary, metropolitan, county, district—and I will touch on that in more detail a moment. It is important not to have a one-size-fits-all structure or a national structure of how people should be recompensed or given an allowance. It is right that that is led locally by remuneration panels and councils that understand what their councils need.

When I was first a back-bench opposition councillor, it involved evenings only for a couple of hours every week or two. In many district councils, it is not much different now. In Great Yarmouth, council meetings are

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still primarily evening meetings to allow people who work to be involved. It is right that councils retain the flexibility to look at what is right for them and their members in representing and being part of their community and involving the community in those meetings.

To touch on a valuable and valid point from my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East, I am doing what I can to encourage all councils to look at their structure and constitution and to decide whether to choose, now that we have changed with the Localism Act 2011, between a cabinet and a committee structure, particularly in small and two-tier authorities, but in any authority, and to involve back benchers and the community as part of that process. I led a committee-structure council, but I know that a cabinet structure can work well, and it is right that councils look carefully at what is right for them, their community and their members, and have the flexibility to make that choice. The ability to make that choice now exists in a way that it previously did not.

The debate has taken place under previous Administrations, and it is fantastic that the Committee and the hon. Member for Sheffield South East have re-energised the debate and enabled it to take place again today. It provides an opportunity for the Government to set out our views on what being a councillor should mean and what roles councillors should seek in the wider context in which they will act and work in the next few years. These issues are not free from controversy, as indeed the Committee’s inquiry, its report and the Government’s subsequent response has clearly shown. There are some sharp differences between the Government’s position on the role of councillors and some of the points in the report.

Before I go into that in more detail, let me say something on which I think we all agree. I pay tribute, as other hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Warrington North, have done, to all councillors throughout the country who give their time, energy and efforts to put in the vital work to set out the strategic direction for their councils, holding them to account for the provision of public services, and representing their communities and residents so well. I recognise the skill and dedication of all those who do that public service as councillors on behalf of all of us as residents.

As we have heard, this country has a long tradition of people serving their community as elected councillors, from parish councillors in our smallest villages to city councillors and directly elected mayors in great cities and urban areas. A whole range of people out there are working in that proud civic tradition and in our great cities. In every case, councillors, as the democratically elected representatives of their communities, are uniquely placed to contribute to their communities’ well-being and future development.

However, as we know from the discussions between my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) and the hon. Member for Sheffield South East about the days of the previous municipal authorities organisation, which I admit predates my time as a councillor, and as I know from my experiences of the LGA and from how councillors have developed today, councils are continually changing. The role of councillors will always change, develop and evolve to meet the needs of communities in any given time and age.

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Employers have a role in ensuring a healthy, vibrant councillor base now and in the future. That is important, and I congratulate the Committee members who have raised the issue of ensuring that we do more to educate employers about the benefits of having councillors—not just their responsibilities if their employees are councillors, but the benefits to them of having councillors who have wider experience of representing, advocating, negotiating and leading for their community.

What is the future for councillors? That is a fair question emanating from this debate. As we set out in our response, the Government are clear that the core principles of being a councillor, for us, are community service and volunteering. We are clear that councillors are and fundamentally should be volunteers. Let me be clear about what I mean. I am not suggesting that councillors should be amateurish or lack the important skills that they need to fulfil their role as representatives of their electorate, but I am clear that being a councillor is not a staff council job.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst pointed out, we do not want a professional councillor role, which would blur the line between the council and the executive. Councillors are there in a different capacity, and it is that difference that gives them their power, their benefit to the community and the strength not just to scrutinise but to lead and set strategic direction without being part of the establishment.

That is why it is important to delineate the difference between a councillor’s role and that of staff of the council. It comes through on many levels, and training is part of that. I congratulate the LGA on the great work that it is doing to develop training. Some training opportunities have been mentioned in this debate, but councils have a duty to ensure that they educate people, particularly new councillors, about the opportunities available. The political parties obviously play a part in that as well, as was mentioned in information given to the Committee.

I accept that there will be councillors—leaders of our cities and counties, cabinet members and leaders in front-line roles, for want of a better phrase—who will in practice put in a level of commitment that is effectively full-time or more. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East mentioned his experience, and the time that he gave. I accept that, which is why I accept that the allowances provided should reflect such commitment appropriately: not as a salary or remuneration package or as compensation for what the person might have earned if they had not chosen to be a councillor, but as appropriate recognition by the community of the contribution that the person is making to the community’s life. “Appropriate” includes also having regard to the present circumstances of the public purse and the pressures and burdens faced by ordinary taxpayers, as the hon. Member for Warrington North pointed out.

The Chairman of the Select Committee and the report made the point that the Secretary of State and I are “inconsistent” in talking about localism; the example that he used was my comments about Cornwall when I gave evidence to the Committee. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst eloquently pointed out, giving local decision-making power does not mean that we as Ministers, or as politicians generally, have taken a vow of silence. It is right that we highlight things.

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It was said that we talked about a Labour conspiracy. Actually, one reason why we gave some of the examples that we did—for instance, the Labour group in Norwich which raised council tax this year and then massively raised allowances, or the meeting in Great Yarmouth lately where a Labour group wanted to raise allowances for vice-chairmen—is that that kind of thing does not give local government a good name when people are struggling at home.

Mr Reed: Can the Minister explain why appropriate remuneration for the full-time leader of a major county or unitary council should not include a pension, while for a directly elected mayor it should?

Brandon Lewis: As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have just held a consultation on the future of the local government pension scheme for councillors, and we will be responding in due course. He will have to bear with me until we respond to the consultation.

However, I highlight, as I just said, that there is a difference between fully employed council staff and councillors. That does not mean that the local remuneration panels and the council should not take decisions about what is right for them locally on remuneration and allowances for council members; they have local power to do so. Equally, if they make decisions that the community do not like or that are referred back, they must also expect their local national politicians to give up their vow of silence.

That is how the Government see councillors in the future, and it is what we believe the majority of our communities expect. In short, as is often the case today, councillors will be those who are the most community-spirited and the most ready to take up the challenge of making a difference to their localities. Their motivation should be, and generally is, community service, not personal gain or advantage for any group or organisation to which they belong.

On representation and diversity, we have heard that the key motivation for the Committee report was statistics from the national census of local authority councillors about the average age and diversity of our elected councillors. The inquiry, to which I also gave evidence, looked in great detail at the changing role of councillors. In particular, it has considered the changes driven by this Government’s desire to decentralise and ensure that powers and responsibilities are effectively delegated to local authorities and, beyond that, to communities, neighbourhoods and individuals.

The inquiry also considered carefully what might be done to encourage a more diverse councillor base and some of the practical issues that may discourage it, and identified three key practical barriers to people putting themselves forward or remaining as candidates, including the time required and the attitude of employers and allowances. It also considered the support required by councillors now and in future.

I will address the issues raised in a moment, but I am clear that the real key to attracting a wide range of new and enthusiastic councillors and retaining and nurturing existing councillors—the point about retention levels has been well made—is ensuring that councils and

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councillors have a purpose and opportunities to get things done that matter to them and their communities. That goes straight to the values of being a councillor, which I have discussed. Our commitment as a Government to localism and the new legislative framework that we have created provides a new impetus for councils and councillors to look outwards, work collectively, engage with their communities and neighbourhoods and exercise new freedoms for their areas.

At the heart of that is the general power of competence, which opens up a fundamental change to the whole culture of local government. Those who grasp that nettle and understand it will realise that there are massive new opportunities and a chance to reinvigorate engagement with leaders, communities and residents on behalf of their areas with councils and other organisations to deliver services and improvements for their communities.

That is the context in which our localism agenda equally reinforces communities through the introduction of neighbourhood planning, the right to build, the community right to challenge and the community right to bid. Although some have suggested that introducing those rights simply acts to bypass councils and councillors, I believe that those powers and rights need to be driven down to whatever level is appropriate and go directly to the community.

If councillors engage fully with those powers and rights, take part and are prepared to put their commitment into such community works, they can provide new and exciting opportunities for councillors to support, encourage, mentor, negotiate and advocate for their communities to deliver things for them and make their communities’ dreams and aspirations become real on the ground.

Decentralising and moving powers to the most appropriate local level is not a threat to councils, but it should incentivise people to become involved and see that they can make a difference to their community. It should empower not only what are often referred to as back-bench councillors but councillors generally, particularly against the strength of an officer base.

At the same time, hon. Members will know that I am currently considering responses to our consultation on the development of parish and town councils, particularly in areas where there are none at present, again with a real desire to provide a focus for local activity, local engagement and, with the support and involvement of local councillors, local delivery. For those with a true interest in their communities, a vocation and a desire to make things better is the incentive to serve. The reward is the knowledge of the part played in delivering those changes and improvements, and in making things better. All of us who are or have been councillors have a part to play in promoting what a fantastic job and experience it is to be able to go out there and work with a community to improve the community in which we live.

I also see opportunities here for councillors of all types, and not only cabinet members or leaders. Some might feel disfranchised, particularly by the cabinet system in an executive council—I get that a lot when I am travelling around the country. We want councillors not only to be reinvigorated in representing their communities to the council and in holding the council to account, but to let the community see that councillors have a hugely important role and purpose on the council.

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Bob Blackman: Is it not one of the dilemmas of the whole system of overview and scrutiny and cabinet that council officers frequently see it as an obstruction to their getting on with the day-to-day job? Therefore, the resources applied to assist members who sit on scrutiny or overview are very limited, and those resources are often the first subject of reductions in expenditure when the council considers its budget. Does that not pose a problem to the whole basis of challenging the executive and council officers who find such overview and scrutiny an unfortunate irritation to their normal work?

Brandon Lewis: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. He reminds me of my time as a councillor, when I would—Members touched on this issue earlier—sit in meetings with council officers. Occasionally, they would, I do not doubt, be blaming somebody unfairly, but they would certainly use the opportunity to say to members that if we did not take a certain action it would upset the Audit Commission, that it would not help us with our comprehensive area assessment—or something else that the normal public do not care about or understand, and nor should they, because it is usually wasting their money—and that the Government will pull part of our grant from somewhere else.

That is why taking away ring-fencing was so important. I appreciate that the hon. Member for Croydon North and other Opposition Members have commented on how important that was. It is also why it was important that we got rid of some of the burdens—not only such things as the standards committees, but the Audit Commission itself and the way it worked. The hon. Member for Warrington North commented that we have the Local Audit and Accountability Bill, which is the final nail in getting rid of the Audit Commission, coming to us very soon. She commented on the Secretary of State’s powers, and I hope to be able to convince her, through the process of the Bill, that it is the right thing to do. It is already part of the code anyway, but she should look carefully at some of the authorities out there that are wasting taxpayers’ money on wholly inappropriate literature. We will talk about that, no doubt, in the months ahead.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East is right in talking about how council officers will use funding. I have spent part of today talking about this very issue. Opposition Members have made the point about council funding and how it has changed. The challenge I put to the local government sector is that it is difficult for the general public to give that real credibility, until we can see every council involved. There are great councils doing great, innovative work to make sure that they are being efficient, but there are still lots of councils out there that have not looked at everything they can do, in terms of front-line services, innovation and shared management, and cracking down on the £2 billion of uncollected council tax and the £2 billion worth of fraud and error. Councils have increased their reserves by another £3 billion in the last year alone to a record high of £19 billion. That money should be going to ensure that we have great front-line services and innovation.

Helen Jones: As the Minister will remember from our discussions on the Local Government Finance Bill, the warnings came frequently that because of the uncertainty of the system he was introducing, local authority treasurers would be advising local councils to increase their reserves. That is exactly what has happened.

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Brandon Lewis: I thank the hon. Lady for her comment, which highlights the points that have been made by my hon. Friends. That is exactly why members and councillors are there to challenge officers, and not just to take their word but to look at things and make decisions for their communities. If they feel that they need to put that in reserves, they cannot credibly say, “We can put away a record level of reserves”—an extra £3 billion this year alone—“but we have not got enough money.” If they did not have enough money, they would not be putting £3 billion into reserves. They would not be able to do it.

Mr Reed: I often hear Ministers say these kind of things. Does the Minister understand the difference between capital and revenue funding? Government Ministers often assume that money can be taken out of reserves and spent on revenue-funded services, without taking account of the fact that that would mean, in the following years, that there would be no reserves.

Brandon Lewis: Yes, I understand that, having been a council leader myself, and having gone through various budgets, including being able to freeze council tax back in 2005 to keep council tax low, as the Government have done consistently since coming into office in 2010. I fully understand that. I say to councils that if they want to spend and if they have reserves they are building up—councils have built up £3 billion of extra reserves in the past year alone, taking the amount to a record high of £19 billion—it is not credible for the public to expect them to be able to build up such reserves while pleading poverty. If they want to look at using that and they need to look at the capital side of their reserves, they should look at putting that into capital expenditure that will help them save revenue further down the line. That can be done, and good councils are doing that across the country and are even able to provide cuts in council tax, as we saw from some great Conservative councils in this year alone.

I recognise that, in general, providing this framework is not, in terms of the Localism Act, the end of the story. I am as keen as anyone here to see more people from more backgrounds become involved in one way or another, bringing a wider range of skills and experiences and spreading the load. However, I am clear that it is also for councils and local political parties to engage positively in their areas, to provide strong role models, to go out into their communities and to be part of them, and to demonstrate the importance of the work they do by using their new freedoms to show that they can make things better, generate an enthusiasm to become involved and then harness that enthusiasm.

That is not about setting centrally driven quotas or lists. It is not about directing councils on the support that they must provide or on how they should do things. It is not about centralising or directing councils over the allowances they pay, nor is it about us taking a vow of silence on any of those things. It is not about imposing additional levels of performance management, when ultimately the ballot box will determine.