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The Earl of Carnarvon: I should like to pick up the point in relation to the independence of local authorities which will find this a very difficult situation. There are a large number of them--two borough councils, eight district councils and two county councils, as well as the City of London. They are not at all happy with the idea of an executive, especially one comprising 10 people. I wonder about this astonishing view of the Government that it has to be 10 people when there are authorities like Birmingham with 117 councillors, Bradford with 90, Leeds with 99, Liverpool with 100 and Manchester with 100, which is well known to the noble Lord, Lord Smith. It will not allow the other parties to be represented at the centre of things, and that is something which I believe has been very important in the whole of my life in local government. There might have been a majority of the majority party, but Liberal, Labour, Conservative and independents were all members of the executive of Hampshire County Council.
I am talking about Hampshire County Council when it had well over 100 members and was even bigger than Essex. We always had a situation where all parties were represented on what in those days we would have called "executive committees" such as are now envisaged. Ten members is much too small. I have tabled two amendments but I do not know whether we shall reach that stage this evening. I want to underline the worry that has been expressed to me by the county councils that are independent. They are extremely worried about being made to have an executive in the way outlined in the Bill.
Lord Woolmer of Leeds: In expressing some disagreement with the amendment as moved, perhaps I may reflect a little upon my experience, which is not entirely the same as that of noble Lords opposite. In Leeds they have already moved to the system that is now being put forward in a legislative manner. The executive was established with members of the opposition within it. The legislation as formulated entirely permits that. It simply is not the case that there must be a one-party executive.
If anything is demonstrated by the experience to date, it is that in different circumstances people still have a lot to learn. It is difficult for opposition members to stop acting as opposition members and to form a collective executive. Therefore there are problems in these areas. Leeds, which is one of the larger cities in this country, has demonstrated its
The impression has been given that the mayors or executives that we are discussing would be extremely strong and dictatorial. In the guidance notes that the Government have provided, Members of the Committee will have noted that a distinction--this is not phrased in language that I would have chosen to use--is made between a strong leader and a weak leader. That is not an entirely fortunate use of words, as the so-called "weak leader" would be a leader determined by the council as a whole. The executive membership can be determined by the council as a whole and can be removed by the council as a whole. In other words, the formats that are possible under the legislation are much more varied than may have been indicated.
Like many others who are present this evening, I have had many years' experience of large city politics. I see a richness of provision in this area which is capable of dealing with a variety of situations. When the noble Lord reflects on whether to test the opinion of the Committee on the amendment, I ask him to recognise that there is far more richness of provision in this area than may appear to be the case.
Lord Whitty: The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, is right to say that this is an important part of the Bill. We have heard a variety of views expressed in this Chamber and have heard a variety of experiences of Members of the Committee and of local government as a whole. That highlights the importance of the revolution in local government which this Bill hopes to bring about.
The aim of all the amendments in this group is to make the move to executive arrangements optional; in other words--as my noble friend Lord Filkin said--to provide an opt-out so that local authorities could opt for the status quo. The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, said that that was contrary to the European charter of local self-government. We do not believe that to be the case. Indeed, as my noble friend Lord Filkin also said, it is clear that the constitutional structure of local authorities is determined by statute or constitution in all countries. The administrative arrangements are another matter.
The constitutional arrangements that we propose here provide not only three different models but many varieties within those different models. That contrasts dramatically with the previous situation that had existed for many decades; namely, a single system, constitutionally speaking, with no option. We are therefore providing a wider option than exists at present. We are also providing an option which we believe allows local authorities to tackle the kind of difficult modern problems that confront them.
The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, is correct to say that even under the old system many councils moved towards a system which constituted, de facto, pretty much an executive council well before they were
The Government in no way believe that one form of executive decision making will be necessarily appropriate or desired across the board. That is the current situation and clearly the lack of choice is imperfect. The committee system--which may well have had its merits 100 years ago--was established to involve all interests in decision making, all on an equal basis. That has in the end, in effect, become a fairly opaque system and a constraint on clear decision making.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, suggests that the reality is that under this system we shall have one party making decisions in private. I believe that in many parts of the country--and, frankly, in parties on all sides of the House--that has been very much the situation in the past. The public have not had a clear, transparent and accountable system of government and it is not correct to pretend that they have. Councillors have not all been equal. Many of them have spent a lot of time on committees dealing with decisions which have already been taken elsewhere. Even councillors in a majority group may have little influence over decisions, and yet they are required to explain the actions of the council to the people they represent as if they were effectively executively responsible for them.
Nor has there been much of a push within councils to provide for clear political leadership within their structures. That is not a reflection on the quality of council members or of council leaders--to return to an earlier discussion which was picked up by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer--but is caused by the structures under which they operate. The current system does not serve to provide accountability; it does not serve to provide innovation; it does not serve to provide speed and effectiveness of decision making; and it does not serve to provide the transparency necessary for the real exercise of democracy.
That is why we do not wish to maintain the status quo. We believe that we need to move away from the status quo to a new form of government which rests on transparency; where it is clear where the decisions are taken, who takes them and who is accountable for them; and which, at the same time, allows the electorate, the population of the local authority, to be represented by councillors in questioning and in effective scrutiny of that executive system.
These arrangements are designed to enable councils to adopt the executive arrangements they wish within the overall structure. That structure is not--as was alleged--a false split. It is a division of the council which indicates where responsibility lies. We want to see local government which is responsive to its people and to produce councils which will do--and will be seen to be doing--what the local community wishes.
A key feature of our proposals is that authorities, in reaching their choice of structures, will consult widely with the local people and other stakeholders on their proposals. It is clearly not true that the options are narrow. Councils, even if they choose one of the three options, do not have a tight and structured option to which they have to stick absolutely. My noble friend Lord Woolmer spelled out the way in which Leeds, for example, is choosing to interpret the models we have presented. In that particular case--and in any other case--there is a possibility of involving members of more than one party in the structure of decision making. Under the present system where there is a majority in the council, that very rarely, if ever, happens.
I understand the genuine anxieties which have been expressed that opposition parties, independents or particular parts of the local authority would not be effectively represented in the decision-making structure. But that ignores the fact that the roles we are giving to non-executive councillors are much enhanced; they have a higher status and the provisions for scrutiny are much more effective than the present committee structure, where, in effect, all councillors on committees are party to the executive decisions and share the responsibility and accountability for those executive decisions.
In our approach there are two key differences and benefits. First, because of the provisions we propose in relation to consultation, involving the detailed provisions in the Bill relating to petitions and referendums, councils will know that they are governing through structures and constitutions that will, clearly and recently, have received public support. Secondly, whatever form the executive arrangements take, people will also know, from that point, who is taking decisions. Those decision takers will be subject to rigorous arrangements for the overview and scrutiny of the executive, providing greater transparency and accountability.
However, it would be wrong for the Government to allow councils that have failed to modernise themselves to take a further option of opting out of this process. It is important that every council and the electorates of every council have the opportunity to move to the new structure and to be able to comment and consult upon the exact form a local council will take.
No doubt as the Bill progresses through the House we shall return to the matters that have been raised tonight. However, having aired many of our differences, I hope that the amendments will not be pressed. Should noble Lords wish to take my words into account, no doubt they will wish to return to these issues at later stages. A difference of option exists here, but I hope that I have convinced at least some Members of the Committee that our proposals to avoid the option of a status quo have some merit.
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