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Royal Assent

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Viscount Allenby of Megiddo): My Lords, I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Act:

Education (Student Loans) Act.

Local Government (Experimental Arrangements) Bill [H.L.]

7.5 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Tanworth: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.--(Lord Hunt of Tanworth.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Lord Lyell) in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Experimental decision-making arrangements]:

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 1:

1, leave out lines 17 to 19.

The noble Baroness said: I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 7, 8, 9 and 10 grouped with this amendment. Also grouped with this amendment is Amendment No. 12 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Tanworth.

Without wishing to make a Second Reading speech at this point--but it should at least occupy a minute or two until those concerned with the Bill are able to hear the arguments on these amendments--perhaps I may say a word or two about the attitude of these Benches. As I said at Second Reading, we are not against innovation in the powers of local authorities, in the electoral arrangements applying to local authorities and in democracy, as well as efficiency, with which the Bill is concerned.

We are most concerned that any new administrative arrangements should not overshadow innovations that are possible without new legislation, such as "localisation", if I may use that term to encompass many different mechanisms; nor indeed the varied responses to the new challenges that have faced local government over the past few years.

I was struck by a comment on comparisons between local government in different countries. It is striking that much of the language of reform is universal. Elsewhere, as in Britain, the phrases that recur are against monopoly and bureaucratic uniformity and in favour of deregulation, accessibility, responsiveness, choice and efficiency--in other words, a much wider agenda than this Bill purports to set.

I was also struck by the comment in paragraph 5.11 of the Widdicombe Report dealing with proportionality that the current model of government is one which has

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proved itself sufficiently adaptable to accommodate all the various circumstances to which the report referred in relation to the composition of authorities.

Having made that general point, I turn to the group of amendments. My amendments are concerned with the establishment of an executive ordinary member. We do not seek to wreck the Bill; and it is partly in regard to that that my amendments do not concern themselves with the powers of a directly elected mayor--another of the models proposed in the Bill.

I believe that the public probably has some understanding of the concept of an elected mayor. I am much less sure that the public understands what might be undertaken by an ordinary member in whom executive authority has been vested. I may betray my age when I say that, as a councillor, I was one of the generation brought up on the concept that governance and management are, and should be, separate.

Voters elect the council; in many cases they elect individuals and they will vote not on a party ticket. But I do not believe that they expect to elect someone who may turn out to have considerable executive powers, with little check on them. Voters expect leaders of authorities to lead but I do not believe that the public expect leaders to be vested after an election with executive powers. By and large they elect councillors for a range of attributes such as political values, priorities, and, of course, the efficiency that they demonstrate, but not primarily for their managerial skills.

I know that there are some residents who expect that if those of us who are councillors are not at home to answer our phones it is because we are out picking up refuse or possibly even constructing multi-million pound budgets with little help from our officers.

I still see the distinction between strategy and politics and the executive role of local government. Therefore, I have put down a range of amendments to delete the references to vesting powers in executive ordinary members. In re-reading the Bill last night, it occurred to me to wonder, particularly seeing an amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Tanworth, dealing with social services, whether an ordinary member to whom powers have been delegated might be reluctant to exercise the serious and complex powers involved with social services. Therefore, in moving the amendment, I take the opportunity to ask whether an ordinary member in that situation can refuse to exercise any of the powers that the authority attempts to vest in him or her. I can see also that an ordinary member might not want to have the responsibility, for example, of taking planning decisions. The whole planning area is only too vulnerable to corruption. I put it in that way. I do not believe that there is as much corruption as some cynics believe. But it is an area where members must be absolutely scrupulous.

One slightly different amendment is Amendment No. 7. It appears to allow delegation to be passed on to another stage, to go down another tier. I was also brought up on delegatus non potest delegare: if you have power delegated to you, you may not delegate it on to another.

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The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, will deal with his amendment, Amendment No. 12, with regard to scrutiny. My comment on it at this stage is that the amendment is not one with which I seek to argue. I observe that it does not require a scrutiny committee. The mechanisms would operate only if there is a committee. Therefore, I do not take issue with it. I do not believe it is necessarily a complete solution to my concerns in that area, but we shall return to the question of scrutiny later. I beg to move.

7.15 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: The Government welcome and support this Bill. We do so because the Bill is not prescriptive but enables those authorities who volunteer to find a better way of doing things, one which suits their own particular needs. Equally we do so because we believe that the opportunities which the Bill opens up are opportunities which, in the right circumstances, will be well worth trying out.

I am bound to say therefore that the Government view the amendments proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, with some regret. Their intended effect is to rule out some of the opportunities for experiments which the Bill currently provides. There would no longer be any ability for an authority experimenting under the Bill to give any of its functions to a single member of the council except for an executive mayor. The effect would be to cut out of the Bill a whole swathe of options for experiment which are currently attracting considerable interest in local government.

Our regret is not primarily because the amendments would simply reduce the range of options open to authorities but rather because the amendments would remove the opportunity for authorities to experiment with arrangements which we, as government, believe could prove to be immensely worthwhile. They would be worthwhile in terms of modernising local government and helping councils more effectively to engage with, and be accountable to, their communities.

I share many of the noble Baroness's concerns about the need for councils to be open, to promote rather than prevent public participation, to open up decision making, and to allow local people a real say in the governance of their communities. But we believe, as do many others, that perhaps part of the problem in the past has been the traditional committee structures. In these structures the executive, scrutiny, and representational roles of councillors are easily confused. By separating out these functions it will be possible to make clear just who has taken decisions and to allow sharper scrutiny of those decisions. That in turn should lead to improved decision making, greater openness and accountability: aims, I believe, which are shared on all sides of the House.

The kind of experiments which the noble Baroness's amendments would rule out are exactly some of those which are centred on achieving this separation of the executive, scrutiny, and representational roles. I am not saying that we are certain that any one of these models

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is necessarily right. But we are saying that councils should be given the opportunity of adopting, say, the cabinet system, or to have a system of lead members.

As the noble Baroness said, these are not new ideas. Like her, I can remember the changes in local government, having started my local government career at the time of the innovations of the Bains Report and the proposals that followed. For example, the ideas were identified in the 1993 report of the joint local government/central government working party, established by the right honourable Member for Henley, which looked at the internal management of local authorities. That working party's membership was drawn from the local authority associations--in which I declare an interest as a member--and the Audit Commission; and it had among its members Professor George Jones, Professor of Government at the London School of Economics.

In its report the working party examined a number of models, including the cabinet system, the lead member system, and the single party executive committee. It identified the safeguards each system would require, the benefits of each and the legal implications. The Bill before us tonight will give councils the opportunity to try out such models for decision taking. The Bill reflects the work and study of that expert working party. Yet these are the decision taking arrangements which the noble Baroness's amendments would rule out as an option for local authorities.

These models are now being actively explored by local authorities. That is not because of some cynical judgment that they will allow them to take decisions without any interference from the public or the opposition, whether inside or outside their own party. Rather the reverse. It is because they see the benefits which might accrue for the quality of local democracy.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, will wish to consider whether it is possible to take away these possibilities--to put this particular genie back in its bottle--without disappointing many responsible, forward-looking and democratic councils and councillors. Perhaps more importantly, do we wish to shut off an opportunity which could lead to real improvements in local democracy?

I understand the concerns about safeguarding the position of minority parties. But I believe that having a clear executive, drawn from the majority party, open to public criticism and review by members from all parties represented on the council, strengthens minorities as compared with their position in the traditional committee structure. This model is used widely throughout the world, both in the constitutions of central government and at the local level.

The models envisaged by the Bill which sharpen executive responsibilities equally sharpen scrutiny. Amendment No. 12, proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, would write on to the face of the Bill an essential element of the scrutiny framework; namely, that a scrutiny committee must reflect the political balance of the council as a whole. We have included in the draft guidance which we placed in the Library of the House this requirement for scrutiny committees to

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reflect the council's political balance. But the Government have no hesitation in supporting the noble Lord's amendment and would commend it to all. Equally, for the reasons I have outlined, I hope that the noble Baroness, particularly in the light of the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, will not wish to pursue her amendments.

We support the principle of the opportunity for local authorities to pursue a variety of models. My personal experience of local government is that for many years there has been a tendency for someone to base a particular model and proposal on the basis of his experience as a Member of Parliament with regard to the local authority or local authorities within his locality. What is right for a small village in the middle of Yorkshire may not be right for Brighton and Hove or for Kingston. Therefore, we welcome the opportunity that the Bill gives to local authorities to make those local decisions under full public scrutiny and with the opportunity to consult the people most closely involved at local level.

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