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Lord Filkin: My Lords, it is with some sorrow that I take issue with a number of local government colleagues for some years. I refer to the noble Lords, Lord Dixon-Smith and Lord Laming, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. The amendments proposed are subtle in wording but would be catastrophic in effect. They go to the heart of the Bill and of the reforms that it attempts to introduce. I do not want to repeat remarks made at Second Reading, but we are in danger of speaking as though there were no problem as regards local government's standing with the public and with central government, whether this or previous governments. Local government has a major problem of respect, legitimacy and relevance.
The governance arrangements are part of that problem. They are basically 19th century arrangements. The committee system may have served well enough at that time, but we are now two centuries further on. The problem is that the present arrangement seeks to combine in one body strategic leadership, operational implementation and management, and scrutiny--and fails lamentably. There is ample evidence, from Audit Commission studies and elsewhere, that none of those three functions is fulfilled effectively in one body. Moreover, the arrangement is frequently a sham: decisions are taken elsewhere.
The Bill proposes an executive. That is nothing unusual. It is the arrangement to which virtually every other local government system in the world has moved, having experimented for years, in some cases with committee systems. Moreover, we are not asked
In addition, the system will not be imposed by central government. So long as local authorities consult with the public, they will be able to determine which model is appropriate for their differing circumstances. At present, there is only one model that local authorities can choose; namely, the committee system, which is flawed and which does not function effectively in most cases.
It is seductive to think, as the LGA states, that only a few would go down this route were the provision to be changed to "may". I am sorry, but I do not believe that to be true. The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, is right to compliment local authorities on the way in which they have responded to the Bill in its shadow form as discussed by the Joint Committee in the summer. It is correct to say that most are now seriously considering the options and how to address the proposals. But, in a considerable number of cases, it is only because the authorities recognise that the legislation will require change. That is certainly what local authorities say to me, both at political and managerial level, when I discuss the matter with them. The survey evidence of the LGA affirms that.
The LGA asked all of its members which of the three options allowed under the Bill they would choose. Over 100 of the 300 that replied answered, "another option"--which in most cases meant the status quo. If the amendment were accepted, the reform that is central to this legislation would not come about. That would be to the damage of both the public and local government. It would mean that we had bumped along in the same 19th century manner which is known to have failed in the past.
Baroness Young: My Lords, this is a very important amendment. I support not only what my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith said in moving it, but also the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, in speaking to her two amendments in this grouping.
I listened with great care to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, in defence of the Bill and the Government's approach. We are all saddened by the low turn-out at local government elections and wish that it were higher. However, I believe that the idea that it will be improved by these arrangements will prove a triumph of hope over experience. When one considers that in response to the referendum regarding a mayor for London barely 30 per cent of the population bothered to vote, it hardly suggests that people cannot wait to have an elected mayor and an elected cabinet or management committee around the mayor. Whatever else may arise from all of this, I do not believe that the proposal in itself will improve the standing of local government.
Furthermore, the noble Lord is being very hard on the current arrangements in local government. Of course there are authorities which have not succeeded and which have been rightly criticised by the Audit Commission, in the press and no doubt by the public
Lord Filkin: My Lords, my point was not necessarily that the public had decided on the status quo as the preferred option, but that local authorities themselves have an inclination in that respect. The LGA survey indicating that most local authorities have determined which option they prefer signalled that two-thirds had not even consulted the public.
Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, we should remember that this is Report stage and, as I understand it, a Member may not speak twice. If that was an intervention in my noble friend's speech, that is fair enough. However, that was not clear.
Baroness Young: My Lords, perhaps I may respond. The amendment simply provides the possibility of retaining the status quo or of some other arrangement providing a change other than the three options. If the drafting of the amendment is not quite right to meet the requirement, that could be looked at. However, I do not see from the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, that that in any way invalidates the argument that some authorities--presumably it is their representatives who are speaking--would prefer the status quo. They can, of course, always vote to have an elected mayor or whatever the arrangement is. This is not a debating point; it is a very serious point. Why are we in business if it is not to attempt to provide what local people would like to have at local level? I hope that the House will support the amendment.
Lord Bradshaw: My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of Oxfordshire County Council. Last week, I had an interview lasting an hour with a consultant who has been hired to come round and talk to all councillors about the new arrangements. That focused my mind sharply on what was going to happen. It made me think carefully about whether the new arrangements proposed in the Bill constitute an improvement.
Perhaps I should first provide some background. Oxfordshire is one of the councils that are fairly equally divided between Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour, with a couple of Green Party councillors. The county is divided geographically and demographically. It is a classic city region, with a city in the centre and a large green belt and many people living outside that. The authority is able to take land use and planning decisions within such freedoms as the Government allow within the boundaries of the county.
Divisions among councillors are not always political. For example, there are those who represent rural areas and those who represent the city. Relationships between ourselves and the five district councils are quite good. Executive control is neither necessary nor appropriate. Although we have not had a council leader in Oxfordshire for at least 12 years, the council is reasonably efficient.
I take up the points raised by the noble Lords, Lord Filkin and Lord Laming. I believe that the real issue is whether the council is efficient and discharges its responsibilities well. For example, our fire service is the cheapest in the country and our trading standards organisation keeps winning charter marks. We were told that our education service, which was investigated by Ofsted only a few weeks ago, was lean and efficient. However, we were criticised for having an insufficient number of people in county hall to administer the service.
Despite the fact that we have no executive or controlling party, some of the decisions that are made are difficult and courageous. For example, I refer to the Oxford transport strategy, of which I am aware the noble Baroness, Lady Young, may not approve. That is a very radical decision for a local authority to take. My experience of other organisations in which I have worked has never led me to believe that the council is overstaffed. It is extremely careful with its resources. There are advocates of change among some senior political leaders and officers who perhaps may be motivated more by personal ambition than the efficient discharge of the responsibilities of the council. However, the concerns that I express this evening reflect the views of councillors of all parties.
At the moment all councillors participate in the decision-making process but many fear that as back-benchers they will be shut out of it. They may be denied open access to officers if the latter regard their primary task as to serve the executive. That has a parallel with the Civil Service here where it is unusual for opposition and even minority parties--for example, the two Green councillors--to have equal access to officials as the majority party.
I believe that to reduce the role of councillors to badly informed scrutineers will make the task very much less worth while. It is extremely difficult to recruit people as candidates, and that is perhaps the biggest defect of local government today. While the low turnout is a worry, it is extremely difficult to get people of ability to come forward and offer themselves
The Government may be justified in their dissatisfaction with the performance of some local authorities. As the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, suggested, those failings need to be addressed. But I believe that here the Government play the part of the weak schoolmaster who punishes all the pupils in the class for some misdemeanour rather than deals with the individuals who merit attention. Why do the Government want to impose these matters upon authorities that perform well against objective measures? I fully endorse the view of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, that what is important is the objective measurement of performance, not the form of administration. These measures will create upheaval which in turn will cost a lot of money. I do not see how they will improve local government. They will certainly de-motivate councillors of every political party. I beg the Minister not to insist that local authorities choose from the unsatisfactory and inappropriate alternatives which are currently on offer in the Bill because I do not believe that they represent a genuine choice.
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