Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I received a second request to speak in the gap but said that there was not enough time because someone was about to speak. However, in the circumstances, perhaps the noble Earl would speak briefly.

8.7 p.m.

The Earl of Listowel: My Lords, I hope that noble Lords will forgive me for speaking briefly in the gap. I am prompted to do so by the indication given by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, that local government is being re-arranged and more people are being encouraged to become involved in councils. I recently visited the Walthamstow Housing Action Trust. The members of its committee of local residents were all women--indeed, about six or seven women who had become very involved in the development of the trust. Given that the primary cause of youth homelessness among young disadvantaged people is poor relationships with their families, especially with their mothers, it would be most helpful if mothers from housing estates

5 Jul 1999 : Column 667

were encouraged to be involved in local government. In that way they would feel empowered, their particular needs would be better met, they would feel better supported and they would, therefore, be better able to support their families.

8.8 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Tanworth, for introducing this debate. I very much enjoyed serving on the Select Committee which he chaired. It certainly made me think rather more about some issues that I think I had probably approached in perhaps too facile a fashion. I should also declare an interest as vice-president of the Local Government Association and of the Association of London Government.

It is quite clearly widely agreed that the current limits on local government's powers are both undesirable and impractical. I have used the following example before in your Lordships' House because, I confess, it hurt me deeply. I refer to the case of McCarthy and Stone. When I was chairing the planning committee, my borough thought it would be sensible to charge the developers for advice from planners merely at the cost of their time. I think that £25 an hour was what we had in mind. However, we were unable to do that.

Recently, in considering the Local Government Bill, I discovered advice to a local authority that it may not sell advertising space in its own publication. That is a telling measure as best value and good practice require local publications to be made widely available. Advertising income does not seem a sinister way of ensuring that that should happen. Local authorities need to be able to consult economically, efficiently and effectively.

On a more general point, the public are rightly concerned about the outcomes of local authority activities; that is, the services. I share the view that the less central constraint there is, the better. It must help if local authorities are not hamstrung as to how to provide services. Flexibility and local decisions about how to do things are particularly important in community leadership. As the White Paper states--and as other noble Lords have said--this is probably the most important role of local authorities.

The noble Lord, Lord Bassam, has mentioned evidence to the Joint Select Committee on the Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill. The aim of the new organisational models is reconnecting people and politics, which I believe is a vital aim, and not just at local level. However, it is notable that the witnesses keep telling the committee that the new duty is more important than the structures. This has been a thread running through the evidence from the Local Government Association and from staff from SOLACE and UNISON. This has not just come from the trade organisations. Over this weekend I have considered evidence from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. It referred to surveys of local authorities that show how many are failing even to make a commitment to produce local Agenda 21 plans. The RSPB states--and I think rightly--that even where there is a

5 Jul 1999 : Column 668

non-statutory target a significant minority of local authorities seem to be failing to meet the necessary standard. The target is set by no less a person than the Prime Minister.

The London Forum--a forum of amenity and civic societies--has responded to the committee's request for evidence. It mentions local authorities "listening and responding". It states that,

    "the 'listening and responding' issue is not so easily addressed by structural change". I think that these are important points. It is interesting to note the wide variety of organisations which make them.

In my eyes sustainable development is as much about process as it is about outcome. It is about reconciling demands--the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, talked about a wish list--seeking a consensus across a local community, or indeed across many communities (I think we all accept that one cannot define a community just in terms of geography), distinguishing demands from needs, wishes and aspirations from urgent requirements, and setting priorities. That is about process, but the process itself helps to define the outcome.

Will the new duty be enough? We know all too well the financial constraints that are applied to local authorities. Because the duty--as we have seen it so far--is a duty, do we not rather need a power? The White Paper at paragraph 8.11 mentions that the new duty will be,

    "underpinned with a discretionary power", but is that merely to enable the duty itself to be exercised? The duty is specific but does it merely meet the issues of the day; is it sufficiently wide to see far enough ahead? I wonder whether the duty as it appears to be framed will miss the point. Once it is framed as a duty, flexibility and priority setting may be excluded. The Greater London Authority Bill has had to prescribe on the face of the Bill a reasonable balance between each of its three principal purposes. That Bill amply illustrates the problems of being specific and limiting the scope of activities, or the manner in which a power is exercised.

We have considered the matter of staff for the mayor. We have discovered that the staff whom the mayor can appoint are not full-time equivalents, they are people. In these days of family friendly working practices, as advised by the Government, the mayor cannot appoint more than the prescribed number of people to share a job. Today we have discussed accommodation for the London Transport Users' Committee. I find it difficult to accept that the Bill has to provide in detail how accommodation is to be made available.

As the Select Committee of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, has said, and as he has mentioned, the new duty should allow for innovation and for local authorities to make mistakes. When we see the legislative form of the new duty I hope that we shall also see that it demonstrates a trust on the part of the Government as regards other democratic structures. That would be for the good of local government and of local people.

5 Jul 1999 : Column 669

8.16 p.m.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Tanworth, for asking this Question which has considerable relevance to discussions that have taken place during the course of the day. While in general I support the Government's intention to introduce legislation to place on councils a duty, as mentioned in paragraph 8.8 of the White Paper,

    "to promote the economic, social and environmental well-being of their areas and to strengthen councils' powers to enter into partnerships", I think we have seen in the GLA Bill some reasons why this simple--as one might have thought--little matter has not been included in the draft local government Bill.

The Greater London Authority Bill contains a multitude of checks for the Secretary of State to exercise on how the Greater London Authority can or will work and--if the Secretary of State thinks that it is not working properly--how he may persuade it gently, or forcibly, to behave in a way that he considers proper. Much as I regret that provision, it is perhaps the reason that the Government have hesitated in this regard.

My background in local government does not suggest to me that the Government's attitude in this regard is either wise or correct. I have immense confidence and faith in local government despite the follies of some authorities on some occasions. If we believe in devolution and local democracy and if we believe that local councils will be accountable and will work in the interests of local communities, we also have to believe that sometimes they may get things wrong. We have to be prepared to live with the consequences.

Management structures in local government to improve their relevance, accountability and communications with their communities have been under discussion for a long time. I refer to the Maude Report on management and local government which I think was published in 1968--over 30 years ago. We have come a long way since that time, but the subject is still under discussion and it is still as provocative a matter as it was then. It will still be as provocative in 30 years' time. In this House, where we are long on discussion--unlike local government, which has to take firm decisions which are acted on immediately--that is perhaps unsurprising.

The British public, the electorate and the communities at large--and here I echo the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee--are interested in outcomes. As my noble friend Lady O'Cathain illustrated, all the consultation in the world will, on occasions, give rise to idealistic views of what can be done, might be done, should be done. But most people want a clear lead and a clear determination of outcomes. They are not too bothered about being consulted to a great degree provided that the decisions taken on their behalf are the right ones and can be seen to work. I, too, should prefer to see that. One of the problems in the Government's White Paper and their former Green Paper is that we are long on the business of consultation and somewhat short on action.

One aspect which perhaps causes concern appears to be the belief in government--which is inherent throughout the White Paper--that everything should

5 Jul 1999 : Column 670

change. It is an interesting ambition. Most people like to leave their mark on the world and it is a good way of setting about things. But I call in aid against that philosophy no less a person than the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor who, when sitting on the Woolsack only last week, said:

    "My Lords, the fact that some things or institutions call for modernisation does not mean that every one does".--[Official Report, 24/6/99; col. 1061.] That does not mean that local government cannot modernise itself and improve its procedures. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, illustrated that his authority, without the backing of new legislation--although it has probably run into some limitations--has already been able to improve the way it works. That also is a fact and a record that one sees in progressive local authorities.

Over the years, I have been fascinated by the way in which good local authorities have introduced new practice, which has subsequently been followed by government and all too often comes up somewhat later in the form of legislation.

I should perhaps return to the present Local Government Bill which is passing through the House. That has what I would call a let-out clause for the Secretary of State to operate in the event that local authorities find themselves unreasonably constrained by a particular piece of legislation at the present time. I suggest that perhaps the constraints, the corsets, under which local government may act are capable--or might be capable when the Local Government Bill becomes law--of being relaxed somewhat.

However, that leads to one aspect to which we should pay attention. As we introduce these more general powers, we change the nature of what I call the vires consideration. Up until now, local government has been obliged to act within the law--and the law is precise. But the new clause that we are debating tonight is not precise; it is general. Indeed, we have the same problem with the Greater London Authority Bill. That is precisely why the Government have felt it necessary to place all these checks on what the Greater London Authority might do on the face of the Bill.

Perhaps the Minister in his reply--to which I look forward--will consider carefully the vires implication of these more general clauses. What is the Government's attitude to the problems they might throw up? It has always been a useful constraint on local government in the past--I have chafed against that constraint as much as anybody; but it has been useful--that it has been bound by the law. As we put in general clauses, that becomes a potential source of difficulty. I wonder what is the view of the Government on that particular problem.

I am grateful to the noble, Lord Hunt of Tanworth, for his Question.

8.24 p.m.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Tanworth, for raising this issue and to all noble Lords who have contributed. It

5 Jul 1999 : Column 671

gives me a chance to explain how this issue fits in with the totality of the Government's approach to local government reform.

In the White Paper, which has been referred to, we made clear our commitment to a comprehensive and co-ordinated agenda, which will modernise the way in which local government will work. It will guarantee the quality of local services and will promote the well-being of communities.

We have already taken action to deliver on some commitments. As the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, said, the electorate are interested in outcomes, and we wish to deliver them. The current Local Government Bill will set in place a new system of best value. It contains measures to improve the delivery of all local authority services, giving a better deal to local people. A beacon council scheme will establish centres of excellence in delivering local government services from which other local authorities can learn. The first round of successful applicants for beacon status will be announced in November. So we have already taken significant steps to establish the kind of modern councils we want to see.

As my noble friend Lord Bassam, who sits on the joint committee, indicated, the Local Government (Organisation and Standards) Bill is now under consideration by the joint committee. It will introduce new structures. A separate executive to make councils more efficient, effective and accountable will also be an important step in making sure that councils are in a position to provide leadership for their communities.

The White Paper made clear that we see community leadership as being at the very heart of the role of modern local government. It also made clear that to do this successfully councils must be both outward-looking and responsive to local needs. For example, tackling the complex problems which blight some of our poorer communities depends on all public bodies working together. Modern councils are well placed to lead this process and to ensure that action is co-ordinated and focused on locally determined priorities. They need to act together with other public authorities in order to do that. We need to take certain steps to remove the constraints on local government, acting with both other authorities and the private sector, to deliver these aims.

Local government will be required to produce new community plans. I welcome the Local Government Association's support and encouragement to launch that new community planning process. I know that many councils are already involved. The process covers a wide range of issues, including, broadly speaking, the well-being aspect and the sustainability to which the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, referred.

Community planning will provide a context for the action which authorities and their partners need to take to address community needs. But it is only part of the framework. Just as importantly, authorities will need new powers to build partnerships with other local bodies and to develop and implement innovative, cost-effective solutions to local problems. A central part of that framework, therefore, will be legislation which gives local authorities the powers they need to promote the

5 Jul 1999 : Column 672

economic, social and environmental well-being of their areas. We are looking at the way in which legislation might be framed. We want to see an effective framework which gives councils real powers to promote the well-being of their areas.

Of course, we are not talking about powers for authorities to do absolutely anything they like. They will need to be sensible and have appropriate limitations on the scope of their powers, if for no other reason than to recognise that there are wider national interests involved. There are constraints, including constraints on the capacity of local authorities to deliver, given the kind of management and other internal problems to which the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, referred. So there will be limits but within them authorities should be given discretion to take action when they feel the need to promote particular aspects of well-being for their local communities.

The powers must tackle the doubts that currently exist about authorities' scope for action. They must enable councils to work with a wide range of agencies and clarify their ability to do so. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, rightly emphasised the importance of providing a framework for improving co-operation between local partners. The noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, referred to the need to take action and we are already doing so. The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, drew attention to Clauses 16 to 18 of the Local Government Bill, which provide the means to remove elements of primary legislation that act as a barrier to the achievement of best value. In particular, they will enable best-value authorities to enter into new arrangements across the whole range of their service responsibilities.

Those powers will be used to facilitate joined-up service delivery--working across organisational boundaries to provide integrated services; develop more service-delivery models, with an emphasis on partnerships between and within local authorities; and clarify the circumstances in which authorities can provide goods and services to others. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, gave a couple of examples of where the present provisions are clearly nonsense and inhibit sensible development. The powers will also be used to make better use of local authority assets. Those provisions will go a long way towards removing the constraints that have hitherto frustrated authorities' efforts to improve the lives of local people.

The well-being legislation will build on all those developments. We will not stop there. Over the coming months, we will look at ways of doing more to remove the barriers that prevent councils and other bodies from working together to tackle the problems that they encounter. The noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, asked whether they will have the capacities and skills to plan strategically. Developing appropriate skills is obviously an important part of the modernisation of local councils. We will work closely with the Local Government Association and others to explain ways of building the necessary capacity within local authorities. We recognise that constraint will have to be tackled.

We need to learn also from government initiatives such as the New Deal for Communities and the various action zones. We need to build on the work of the Social

5 Jul 1999 : Column 673

Exclusion Unit on effective means of tackling social exclusion. In building on that incremental process through the various legislation that will come before Parliament, we are developing an entirely new approach to local government--but there are some horses for courses aspects. A number of noble Lords cross-referred to the Greater London Authority Bill, which is not far from our thoughts today. I understand the relevance of the cross-references but there are important differences between the GLA and local authorities as a whole. The GLA legislation is concerned with establishing from scratch a new strategic body. Providing it with a purpose--to promote well-being--is a necessary part of the powers of that new body. They need to be explicitly so.

The position for local authorities is historically more complex and a lot of baggage--if I may use that word neutrally--comes with it. Local authorities already have a wide range of specific powers and duties and many developed ways of delivering them. They have an even wider range of restrictions on the exercise of those powers. We are not starting with a blank piece of paper. We need to frame the legislation in a way that clarifies local authorities' powers and removes unnecessary restrictions but which recognises that we are starting with something that has organically developed over a long period.

Queries were raised as to why the well-being provisions are not at present in the draft Local Government Bill being considered by the joint committee. We are committed to a comprehensive and coherent agenda for modernising local government and well-being is a fundamental part of that agenda. It almost goes without saying that the transformation of local government will require strong political leadership. That commodity may be in short supply--although I am not quite so pessimistic as the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain. A new environment will help to create more positive and innovative leadership but that will take time and will involve leadership in the community as well as in the local authority.

In terms of providing for well-being, my noble friend Lord Bassam, although he supports it being in the Bill, recognises that our whole programme is a rolling programme of introducing various changes. Although the proposed measures are clearly interrelated, it is not necessarily the case that one cannot have a particular measure before the others. Nevertheless, your Lordships will understand that it is not possible to present detailed proposals for every measure at exactly the same time and to indicate now what will be done next. The reform of the structures will relate to all the functions of a local authority--and its powers and duties will follow.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, that in implementing well-being, we need to provide a flexible framework to respond to local priorities and to deliver improvements to the local quality of life. That is the historical responsibility of local government and one that it can fulfil under the new scheme. I agree also with the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that authorities need a broad power to enable them to promote well-being. It

5 Jul 1999 : Column 674

needs to be sufficiently flexible to allow authorities to respond to future changes and opportunities. That is where we will be concentrating our legislative attention.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, asked gently whether we will be legislating in the next Session for well-being, in the context of the draft Bill or otherwise. I cannot possibly anticipate what might or might not be in the next Session's legislative programme. Nevertheless, I assure the noble Lord that the Government are concerned, along with local government, that a legislative framework is in place that enables authorities to lead their communities and work effectively with other service providers to that end.

The Government have an ambitious programme to modernise local government. Modern, open and accountable councils with strong leadership are uniquely well placed to lead their communities. The delivery of well-being will be greatly dependent on the other changes we are making in local government.

I have welcomed the opportunity to set out the rolling programme for carrying that forward, and we will doubtless take note of the various comments made during the course of the debate when deciding precisely how to do that.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page