My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes touched on elections every two years, and he has made his views well known around unitary councils. Where we do have examples of two-yearly elections, the turnout is not particularly higher, and it is certainly no higher than when we have all-out four-yearly elections. Again, that

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is something that councils have the freedom to look at, take a view on, and decide what is right for them in their communities.

Nor is this about imposing any central burdens on national or, in particular, local taxpayers without the opportunity for them to consider whether that is how they want their money to be spent. What it is about is harnessing the enthusiasm on the ground to get involved and make a community better. For example, we already have more than 650 communities applying to have a neighbourhood area designated. That is the first step in a formal process for neighbourhood planning. More are joining each week and, in that way, exercising a real local say in how they want their areas to develop.

It is about working with communities and encouraging them to see the new opportunities open to them, even if the community does not necessarily want to get involved to start with, because it is something new and they are not used to it. There is nothing to stop councillors from encouraging them to make their views known and to start to build interest, or from mentoring them and representing them in the council and other service delivery organisations.

There are many examples of councillors working in communities to help their residents take back control. This is about those councillors acting as role models for and in their communities. It is about explaining clearly the roles of councillors and the function of local government in people’s lives. We all have an important part to play in that, as do the media, as a couple of Members touched on earlier. It is about councils truly valuing the work of their councillors, supporting and empowering them and providing them with the necessary freedoms, tools and budgets as appropriate.

It is about local and national political parties engaging with people, considering how they can best encourage people and candidates to come forward, and looking at their own rules and processes.

Mr Betts: Will the Minister address the issue that I raised at the end of my contribution about the lobbying Bill? It was not in the report because it was not an issue then. We want to know whether the proposals will restrict councils and councillors in their role. There is an exemption in schedule 1 for MPs so that we are not caught by the provisions, but there is not one for councillors, which gives the impression that councillors will be caught by it.

Brandon Lewis: I was aware of the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I was going to say that we do not believe that the Bill will have a detrimental effect on councillors. His comment is on the record and I will ensure that my colleagues in the Cabinet Office look at that. We will come back to the Chair of the Select Committee with any feedback on the specific comment, but we do not believe that it will have such an effect. As I say, that is on the record, and I will make sure that he gets some feedback.

Getting people more involved is also about councils and councillors considering the skills and support that they need—Opposition Members have touched on that today, as I did a few minutes ago—and drawing on the programmes that organisations such as the Local

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Government Association run so well, seeking out appropriate training or mentoring opportunities and looking to identify and replicate best practice. All of us, but particularly council leaders, group leaders and lead members, have a role in encouraging members to get involved in training.

I saw this when I was a council leader. There are councils that will organise a training session, and some councillors will turn up, wanting to be involved and to learn, but often the ones who most need the support and help, whether they realise that or not, are the ones who do not turn up to those meetings. We must have the courage to admit that that happens, do something about it and encourage those people to be part of those opportunities. That will benefit both them and their communities.

Getting people more involved is also, as hon. Members have rightly said, about how councils manage the times of their meetings best to suit the pattern of councillors that they have and the communities that they represent. That is about using the flexibility that they do have.

Getting people more involved is about councils and councillors working with local employers to demonstrate the skills that they bring to their representative role: negotiating skills, analytical presentation and debating skills, a determination to succeed, the ability to work with others and, where successful, a clear track record of delivery. Those are real skills—Opposition Members made this point—that any workplace and any employer should be keen to recognise and proud to encompass in their work force.

Above all, getting people more involved is about all of us, from central Government through the whole local government sector to individuals—“councillors on the front line”, to use the Select Committee’s phrase, and those they represent—working together to make that happen.

I would not pretend, and I do not begin even to suggest, that any of this is easy. We in central Government must push even harder, I acknowledge, to do our bit, to reduce as far as possible centrally imposed burdens on local government and to continue to turn the tide from the centrally created system that, as hon. Friends commented, we have seen for so long, to locally driven action. An enabling framework must be provided to allow that, and real change, to happen.

I welcome the debate that we have had this afternoon. The way in which the role of councillors is to develop in the future, embodying the development, delivery and oversight of efficient and effective public services, and the developing role in communities and neighbourhoods, are a matter for ongoing discussion and development, and I am pleased to be involved at this stage and very happy to continue to be involved in the debate. It will be an important debate for the future of local government in our country and the councillors who work so hard for their communities within it.

4.12 pm

Mr Betts: I thank you, Mr Benton, and Mrs Brooke for the excellent way in which you have chaired the debate and kept things in order. We have had a very good debate—a very positive debate. Some differing views were expressed, but generally there was quite a lot of consensus about the fact that councillors play a vital

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role in delivering public services and are vital for the health of our democracy. It is also very important that councils are member driven and member led. There was a lot of consensus about that as well.

There was consensus about the challenges facing councils and councillors today. It is a greatly changing world: changing in terms of the internal arrangements of councils, the financial framework within which they operate and the powers that are devolved to them—or, in some cases, taken away. There are also changes in the way councillors themselves operate. Many of them are, as we saw in Sunderland, devolving more responsibilities and more budgetary control to local level within their councils. The Select Committee saw that as a very positive move.

In this rapidly changing world, with the challenges that it presents, it is very important that councillors—not just the cabinet members, but all councillors—have the support necessary to enable them to do their jobs inside the council. I am talking about the admin support, the clerical support and the training that is necessary. That point has come across very strongly in the debate. It is one that the Select Committee highlighted and it has also received support from the Minister this afternoon.

General concerns were expressed about the lack of diversity and the need to address that. There was recognition that that is a responsibility for political parties, for councillors themselves, for the LGA—it is the responsibility of everyone involved in politics to raise the issue. Again, the Minister was supportive of that. It might be interesting to come back in four years’ time and see whether progress has been made after another cycle of council elections. That will be the test in the end of whether we have made progress—the next round of councillors who are elected.

There was quite a lot of discussion about the barriers to becoming a councillor. Again, I was pleased by the Minister’s encouragement to employers to see that having councillors as employees is beneficial. That is important. Perhaps the Government could do a little more. We may have further discussions about what more they can do to raise the issue with employer organisations and get the message across that they could be doing more to encourage that as well.

There was a lot of discussion about remuneration. I am still not sure that I like the term “volunteer”. Of course all councillors volunteer; nobody presses them to do the job as part of a work programme. We are

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volunteers. We are all here because we want to be, but nobody calls us volunteers. Councillors are not volunteers in the sense that they should be doing it for free, as people might do as a scout leader. There is a difference, and I think that the Minister recognised that to a degree.

Of course, most councillors are not full time. Some do only a few hours a week and, on a smaller district council, do the job perfectly well, but an executive mayor or a leader of a major authority will be full time. The hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) made that clear from his experience. In that sense, it is the job that that person has, because they cannot have another job if they are full time.

The issue is how we deal with people who are not full time, but are taking time off work. We cannot recompense people for the promotion that they might have had if they had not been on a council, but perhaps we can do a bit more to recompense people who have to take some time off work and do not get covered by the allowances. Clearly, that is a disincentive. That is reflected in the percentage of councillors who are retired and the fact that many people in work feel put off from doing council work or leave when they start to get more involved in their full-time job.

There are still challenges around, and I hope that the Minister is at least up for an ongoing discussion about them, because we want to see the diversity in all our communities properly represented.

I shall pick up one final point. I am committed, and the Select Committee has been whenever it has discussed it, to more devolution, more decentralisation and more localism—sending more powers down to local level. The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers)—he is not a member of the Select Committee, so I will probably refer to him in a cross-party way—made the point that if we are to move more powers down and have more responsibilities at local level, those powers in the end will be best exercised by those who are accountable to their communities because they are elected. That is a very important point: more powers at local level, but exercised by people who are elected and therefore ultimately accountable to their local communities. That is what councillors are, and that is why they are so important.

Question put and agreed to.

4.17 pm

Sitting adjourned.