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Lord Williams of Elvel: My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for her long explanation, which is essential, of the powers of the National Assembly for Wales and the United Kingdom Parliament. I do not disagree with my noble friend. I believe that to a certain extent my noble friend has reinforced the authority of the National Assembly for Wales. I am not sure that my friends in the Principality will be wholly supportive of my noble friend's explanation. Nevertheless, the Minister has gone a long way to calm any disturbance about the provisions of the Commons amendments. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment No. 8A, as an amendment to Commons Amendment No. 8, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, Commons Amendment No. 8 agreed to.

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3.30 p.m.


9After Clause 6, insert the following new clause--
(" .--(1) Subject to subsections (4) and (6), the National Assembly for Wales may by order amend, repeal, revoke or disapply any enactment to which subsection (2) applies so far as that enactment has effect in relation to a local authority in Wales.
(2) This subsection applies to--
(a) section 49(1)(c) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990,
(b) section 2 of the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995,
(c) section 84(2)(b) of the Environment Act 1995,
(d) any other enactment (whenever passed or made) which--
(i) requires a local authority to prepare, produce or publish any plan or strategy relating to any particular matter, and
(ii) is specified in an order made by the Secretary of State under this subsection.
(3) The power under subsection (1) may be exercised in relation to--
(a) all local authorities in Wales,
(b) particular local authorities in Wales, or
(c) particular descriptions of local authority in Wales.
(4) The power under subsection (1) may be exercised in relation to a local authority only if the National Assembly for Wales considers--
(a) that it is not appropriate for any such enactment as is mentioned in that subsection to apply to the authority, or
(b) that any such enactment should be amended so that it operates more effectively in relation to the authority.
(5) The power under subsection (1) to amend or disapply an enactment includes a power to amend or disapply an enactment for a particular period.
(6) An order under subsection (2)(d)(ii) which specifies any enactment may provide that the power under subsection (1) may be exercised in relation to that enactment only if the National Assembly for Wales complies with any conditions specified in the order.
(7) In this section "enactment" includes an enactment comprised in subordinate legislation (within the meaning of the Interpretation Act 1978).")

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I spoke to this amendment with Commons Amendment No. 8. I beg to move.

Moved, That the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 9.--(Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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10Leave out Clause 9

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 10. In speaking to Amendment No. 10 I shall speak also to the other amendments in this group and indicate a preliminary view.

Commons Amendment No. 10 goes to the heart of the Bill. It is the policy that every council must adopt a new constitution giving increased efficiency, transparency and accountability. It was to sustain that policy that the Government and the House of Commons rejected the previous view of this House on the basis of a Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, that this should all be left to voluntary action by councils. For that reason, also, we cannot accept Amendments Nos. 10A, 11A and 13A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, which have the effect of negating this fundamental requirement for change. His amendments would allow the status quo--even if he says that in practice many councils would do a different thing--and would cut across the whole of the Government's strategy. That is in total opposition to a main plank of the Bill. While it goes against the grain for me to accuse the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, of being an extremist, in this context he takes an extreme position.

In previous debates in this House and in another place there have been calls for greater flexibility in the Government's position. We have listened. We have talked to local government. Amendment No. 10B, and so on, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, would give additional flexibility of the type sought. The approach encapsulated in the amendments is one which, after discussion, we are persuaded, both by the noble Baroness's arguments and by many in local government, is acceptable. It is an approach which the LGA has warmly welcomed. The chair of the LGA has "urged all parties in the Lords to support" the noble Baroness's amendments. Indeed, while the Joint Committee, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, which scrutinised the draft Bill, made a case for more flexibility, it did not argue that the status quo should be an option. The amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, ignore that broad consensus.

In contrast, the noble Baroness's amendments reflect growing consensus in this area. The Government have listened and have taken the issue on board. The amendments open the possibility that for certain councils the options for new constitutions from which local people can choose will, in addition to the range of executive constitutions, include constitutions based on a modernised committee system. As I shall make clear in speaking to later amendments, we have sought to enhance the powers available to overview and scrutiny committees which, as we have continuously stressed, are central to all our new arrangements.

We are prepared to accept that for small shire district councils in England--those with a population of fewer than 85,000--this kind of revamped

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committee constitution could work in terms of delivering the increased efficiency, transparency and accountability which the Government and everyone wish to see. The amendments in the noble Baroness's name will also allow the Secretary of State, and in Wales the National Assembly, to specify in regulation other descriptions of groups of councils which could have this additional flexibility.

I speak also to Amendments Nos. 12, 14 and 17 and in that context will ask the House to oppose Amendments Nos. 12A and 14A, again in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith. Those amendments deal with a separate issue. The Commons amendments in this group will put in place a clear process for making available to councils other options for executive arrangements which go beyond the three broad frameworks on the face of the Bill. The amendments respond to and build on the amendments proposed in this House by Opposition parties and others during Third Reading. They provide further flexibility.

The amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, would not provide that flexibility. They would not deliver an effective and practical regime for making available additional forms of executive.

In terms of the somewhat complicated procedure today, I point out that were the House to accept Amendment No. 10A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, many of the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, with which we agree, and with which we ask the House to agree, and which are the cornerstone of the amendments in her name, could not be moved. I shall, therefore, ask the House to adopt what I think is the compromise position and not the position of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith.

Moved, That the House do agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 10.--(Lord Whitty.)


10ALord Dixon-Smith rose to move, as an amendment to the Motion that the House do agree with the Commons in their amendment, leave out "agree" and insert "disagree"

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I beg to move Amendment No. 10A. The Minister is right to describe this provision as the heart and core of the Bill. I do not apologise for taking what the Minister chose to call an extremist view on the matter. We need to be careful what we are about. As the Minister said, these amendments would allow local authorities to have their existing committee structure amended to make it more efficient and accountable if they choose so to do. That is outwith what the Minister himself said when he introduced his Commons Amendment No. 10.

The Minister began with the words "every council must". Unfortunately he went on to support amendments which provide that every council "need not". I believe that he has launched a considerable torpedo at the principle he enunciated in his opening remarks.

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I accept that the amendments of the Liberal Democrats would give a small degree of flexibility by permitting the continuation of present practice for a limited number of small authorities. If one asks the views of the generality of local government, the conclusion is rather different from that of the Government. There is strong support for extending the principle of flexibility achieved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, to local government generally. The fact that the Minister thinks that he needs to have compulsion in the Bill does not indicate to me a high degree of confidence in the benefit that would come from the proposals. Over the years, local governments have successfully adopted and adapted legislation--on many occasions it was not particularly good legislation--and made it work. They will do that again if necessary. To compel local government to do so seems wrong.

The background history to the issue goes back a long way. Local government originated from local single purpose boards which raised rates to undertake specific functions. Legislation brought those boards together in the form of local government which gradually evolved into that which we see today. It is a matter of deep regret to me that the standing of local government--when originally formed its standing was high not only in this country but also internationally--has gone down in inverse proportion to the volume of regulation and legislation that has been put upon local government. It gives me no satisfaction to say that.

Behind all this is a British tradition of good local government that involves the participation by election of large numbers of people representative of the community in the executive decisions of authorities. The Bill seeks to change that and place responsibility for executive action in the hands of a limited and differentiated number of councillors. I do not find that principle acceptable, which is why I take an extreme position on this issue.

That idea is a foreign import. It either comes from the Continent, where mayors are wont to have more power and councils are smaller, or from America--where many councils are much smaller. We have imported the idea but not the culture. The culture in both those instances is a much lower level of general representation on local councils.

If the Bill did for local government something that had been established in London with the Greater London Authority, even though I might disagree, there might be some hope that the proposals would work. However, nothing is being done about the number of councils. A large number of people elected by their local communities will see their role as being diminished and be extremely frustrated. That is not acceptable.

We should be careful before imposing on local government an idea that is superficially attractive--anyway, it looks like a frightfully good wheeze. We are about something more serious--keeping a system working that is within our customs and traditions and

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which is acceptable to our communities. The representations that I have received from throughout the country do not suggest that is the case.

Moved, as an amendment to the Motion that the House do agree with the Commons in their amendment, leave out "agree" and insert "disagree".--(Lord Dixon-Smith.)

3.45 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 10B to 10N and Amendments Nos. 71A to 74A--all of which are grouped with Amendment No. 10A.

I would not call the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, an extremist. We share an enthusiasm for the local element. If he is an extremist in that, so am I. However, we have reached a point with which the House is familiar--how far we should go in challenging the elected Chamber and how serious we are about prolonging the legislative process without the serious intention of blocking the Bill. We have to consider how much more we might achieve by accepting that the Government will get their Bill and instead seek alterations that the Government might agree even at this late stage.

It will come as no surprise to your Lordships that we on these Benches share the view taken by some that the new structures should not be imposed on local government. We are aware that the old ways, particularly among old Labour local authorities, do not always serve their communities well, but we must recognise political reality. Many authorities, seeing the way that the Government are moving, have already started on the path of executive scrutiny. I am sad that we are not to benefit from pilots of the new arrangements. I say that less than three months after the election of a new form of government for London that makes a clear distinction between executive and scrutiny and a mere three weeks since the formal launch of the Greater London Authority. I should explain to your Lordships that I am deputy chair of the Assembly.

Not least among the issues to be addressed is how best to marry the so-called big tent approach of co-operative politics involving all parties--grown-up politics--with the necessary scrutiny of an executive. It is a pity that there will not be the opportunity before legislation to learn from London or pilot local authorities. That said, many authorities have invested a great deal in the new arrangements. If the Bill becomes law--I fear that there is not the will to prevent that--it will do no service to our colleagues in local government to extend the interim period or fail to take the opportunity to make changes where there is most concern. Nor will it help them to lose the considerable benefits of Part I--the powers in respect of the promotion of well-being, which are close to a power of general competence for which we on these Benches have long argued, and the duty to work towards sustainable development.

The Government's acknowledgement of the position of the National Assembly for Wales, which will have a regulation-making power, and the

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alterations that the Government are prepared to make for access to information and open decision-taking, are matters that we will deal with later but they are part of the approach.

Changes of particular concern relate to smaller authorities, particularly where there is a history of non-party operation. That tradition concerned the Joint Select Committee that considered the draft Bill. The proposed new clause introduced by Amendment No. 10E provides for alternative arrangements in the case of certain local authorities. Districts with a population of fewer than 85,000--I understand that there are 86 of them, which is almost 21 per cent of the total--and other local authorities able to persuade the Secretary of State or National Assembly, could apply to make alternative arrangements that do not involve a separate executive. They must consult the electorate and others and look for arrangements securing continuous improvement to economy, efficiency and effectiveness--the first value duty.

The provisions--this is not current government policy but a future Secretary of State may take a different view--would allow for regulations for other categories of authorities, such as all districts in a county, all authorities sharing particular characteristics or even tiny unitaries, such as Rutland. If they can persuade the Secretary of State or National Assembly that they can meet the conditions, flexibility will apply to them too.

Districts with a population of slightly more than 85,000 may wonder why the threshold is set at that figure. In discussion with the Government that was the point at which we were able to reach an accommodation. Bluntly, it was horse trading. The Government resisted including too many authorities while I was seeking to include as many as I could.

As the Minister said, the amendment has been welcomed by the Local Government Association. In response to the original Bill, it expressed concern that the operation of an executive would not mean better decision making. I am pleased that it welcomes the amendment and I thank its members for their assistance throughout the passage of the Bill.

The amendments standing in my name build on an amendment which I proposed during the Bill's last stage in this House. It allowed different arrangements when certain criteria were met. Your Lordships agreed to that amendment and to complete flexibility. I hope that your Lordships will agree to the proposal before the House today.

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