Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

I will just ask about this business of slates of different sizes. A slate of four people might say, “Just four of us—we can galvanise, we can get together”. Eight people would say, “No, we represent more of the district or county, so we are a better slate”. Should local elections be about that kind of organisational structure—about which structure of an executive is

10 July 2007 : Column 1366

the best way to run a particular county, borough, district or whatever? Should elections not be about the services that are going to be produced and about differences between the slates or candidates on projects in the area—what people will provide—rather than this rather arid structural thing? We are not going to get people to vote on that, are we?

Baroness Andrews: The noble Lord and I are at one in thinking that this has to be about better services and better ways of delivering things for people. As I said before, this will be tested against notions of effectiveness and efficiency as well. The point is that the people will decide whether this slate is convincing enough to be elected. They will do that on the basis of what they think would provide better services, not on what they think is a better structural arrangement. He and I are agreed.

Lord Tyler: I apologise to the noble Baroness and to the Committee—I followed the earlier debate, but maybe my point has already been dealt with and I missed it. I am concerned about the principle of accountability under this model. I admit that my experience was in a county council where there was no overall control. This model may be so inappropriate to that situation that the Minister will say that it would not be acceptable in those circumstances. However, I cannot for the life of me see to whom precisely the executive, under this model, are accountable. Are they accountable to the elected leader? If so, what happens if, during the four years of that leader’s office, there is a change in the whole colour and tenor of the council? Such a change in political control can happen very easily these days, maybe as the result of by-elections. Particularly with low turnouts—incidentally, I think that this will lead to very low turnouts indeed—I do not think that it will be clear what responsibility people will have if elected. That will be at the root of the problems related to this subsection.

I am reminded that in all the discussions last week—the Prime Minister’s Statement, the Green Paper on better governance—there was a clear intention that we should seek to develop schemes that give more authority, responsibility and accountability to our local government, as to our central government. But this seems to be a recipe for confused accountability. The noble Baroness must explain how this model will ever operate in those circumstances and give to the people more sense of responsibility and accountability. If, in fact, the model is never taken up by any authority and will never be a model with which any authority believes it can provide that system of local governance, it is a waste of the time of this House and Parliament.

9 pm

Baroness Andrews: The noble Lord asked an important question for which my answer is simple, because it is consistent with the White Paper published last week. The elected executive are accountable to the people.

Baroness Hanham: I am sorry; I must pick that up. The people elect the executive for four years, and do not like what the executive are doing. They do not follow their manifesto. They run the council into all sorts of problems. Who gets rid of them? Does there have to be a referendum? How do you get this elected

10 July 2007 : Column 1367

executive out of the system? Irrespective of whether they are there for four years or whether there are elections by thirds or by halves, there seems to be no concept that the elected executive could go wrong or run awry. I know the argument regarding elected mayors who run their own operations—they are in the hands of the electorate after four years. I do not believe that we can talk about allowing an executive to run a council for four years, with full responsibility for every service and every penny of the council, with no way of getting rid of them until the next election.

Baroness Andrews: We have brought in four-year terms, not just for this model but for others as well, to introduce some stability. If the council gets into trouble, that will bring the role of at least the Standards Board into play—if it is that sort of trouble. Parts of the executive body will always be susceptible to that. It is part of the model. I listened closely to what the noble Lord said and we will think about these arguments because, clearly, we are not familiar with this model. He mentioned detailed conflicts and we are happy to think about them. However, that is the system implicit in this model. My note from the Box has just reinforced my case.

Lord Greaves: That was the most encouraging thing that I have heard in the past two or three hours: the Minister said that the Government were thinking about these things. That is good news, because there are so many questions and potential problems that all we can ask the Government to do is to think. We hope that their thinking comes up with something that is a bit better.

Returning to the question of what I keep calling aldermanic by-elections, but are actually elected executive by-elections, let us assume that there is an executive of six members. It is likely that they will be on the ballot paper in six wards. Assuming that they are all fairly prominent people in their party’s leadership on the council—the sort of people who would get on the executive if the existing executive arrangements applied—they will be standing for different wards and will probably be leading their tickets in each of those, say, three-member wards. There will be a lot of by-elections—it is not just a question of one or two. It is not like an election for a mayor, involving one person and in which one ward has a by-election. There will be a mini-general election for that authority. We are not raising trivial matters, of which it can be said, “The by-elections will happen and who cares about a few by-elections?”. If the election is for a bigger executive of, say, eight people, half the wards in an authority such as an ordinary district council could have by-elections five or six weeks after the ordinary May elections. It could change control, but perhaps it would not matter because the elected executive would have total power.

Secondly, I want to pick up the point the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, raised about what to do if things go wrong, because things will go wrong. You cannot design structures which guarantee utopia. You cannot design structures which guarantee adequate leadership, never mind excellent leadership. There will be people who are the wrong people, cannot cope, or

10 July 2007 : Column 1368

for whatever reasons go off the rails. What does the council do under those circumstances? At the moment there are checks and balances within the council that allow something to happen. The majority party may sort it out and come up with a fresh leadership. Maybe a wider group of people on the council say that things have to change, and perhaps the next time they meet things will have changed. This system, as the noble Baroness said, is going to produce rigidity—a lack of flexibility—over four years. If everything is going wonderfully, there is no problem, but systems should not be designed for when things go wonderfully; they should be designed to cope with difficulties.

Finally, the Minister said that in order to get such a system, a council would have to show that it will secure continuous improvement. That seems to me to beg the whole question of elections. Whether councils bring continuous improvement or any other sort of improvement will depend on who gets elected. You cannot design systems to guarantee continuous improvement. It all depends on who gets elected, who is running it and who is in control. There seems to be the fallacy at the heart of what has been proposed that you can get continuous improvement by imposing structures from above. You cannot.

Baroness Andrews: I will reply very briefly. On by-elections and ward councillors, if this model is adopted, people will understand the implications and common sense will prevail. We have to bear that in mind in terms of who chooses to stand as a ward councillor as well as an executive. Of course, a lot will depend on the leader and the way the process is constructed.

On continuous improvement and what happens if things go wrong, things have gone wrong with councils over the past 10 years and various strategies have been employed to assist, intervene, support and change. That is one reason why we have had continuous improvement in our councils. This council is not going to be any different from any other council in that respect. The normal checks and balances will remain, not least the strategic powers—the quasi-judicial powers, for example, which continue to rest for the planning committee in terms of the relative role of the leader. I have listened to noble Lords, and I will read Hansard very closely and reply to anything I have not been able to reply to.

Baroness Hamwee: I am sorry to come in again but I think it is useful to keep clearing these issues out of the way, even if there are people in this Chamber who wish we would move on.

First, on planning, presumably it is the executive who lead on plan-making even if there is a quasi-judicial committee which deals with development control matters. Secondly, am I right in thinking that because the budget is a decision for the whole council, subject obviously to negotiations—there are provisions about putting a budget in place by a certain point in the year—the non-executive part of the council could stymie the executive’s proposals for the budget, which might be a particular possibility if it is of a different political complexion from the executive? Therefore,

10 July 2007 : Column 1369

the executive have wide executive powers, but they are limited in relation to the budget and the executive would have to take the council with it.

Baroness Andrews: As I understand it, that is correct. Did the noble Baroness ask another question?

Baroness Hamwee: Do the executive have the powers to make the plan, rather than it being a matter for the whole council?

Baroness Andrews: Yes; the noble Baroness is right.

Lord Greaves: This has been an extremely useful discussion. I am not sure that the Minister wanted it to go on quite as long as it did, but we are very grateful for her patience in defending what seems to us to be a parlous state on a fairly sticky wicket. As she promised to do and asked us to do, we will read Hansard carefully and I hope that we will all understand the situation a little more when we have done so. I have no doubt that we shall return to this matter at a later stage but, for the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Greaves moved Amendment No. 116:

The noble Lord said: This is a slightly curious diversion down the byways of the Local Government Act 2000. When we researched the Bill and looked at this clause and others, we were all surprised to discover that Section 11(5) and (6) of the 2000 Act provide for an elected executive arrangement. Section 11(5) says that the executive of the authority,

I think that Henry VIII might have been proud of that clause—and subsection (6) says:

and,

and the system of voting can be decided by the Secretary of State. In a sense, I wonder what we have been talking about over the past couple of hours, except that we now have a much more prescribed system to discuss.

As there is a proposal in the Bill for a new system of arrangements based on a clearly prescribed elected executive, what is the purpose of maintaining this antique, seven year-old legislation, which has been so popular that no one has taken it up? At the very least, it is redundant and should be removed from the law of England. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee: Our Amendment No. 159C is grouped with Amendment No. 116 and has exactly the same effect. I hope that it is reassuring that we are coming up with the same points without rehearsal. That shows consistency on our Benches, at any rate.



10 July 2007 : Column 1370

Our Amendment No. 149A concerns what is to happen for there to be a move to a new form of executive prescribed by the regulations to which my noble friend has referred. Under new Section 33L(3), the resolution to make the change requires a two-thirds majority. I suppose that I should own up to having sat through the passage of the 2000 legislation, but, if at that point a two-thirds majority was not thought necessary, what has happened to require one now and why is it needed for this particular restructuring? I am sure that there is a good reason, but it is not immediately obvious.

9.15 pm

Baroness Andrews: Amendments Nos. 116 and 159C would amend the Local Government Act 2000 and remove the Secretary of State’s powers to make regulations providing for new forms of executive. Amendment No. 149A removes the reference in Section 33L of the Act, as inserted by Clause 64, to the procedure for moving from directly elected leadership arrangements to new forms of executive arrangements provided through Section 11(5) of the 2000 Act. In short, they would remove the Secretary of State’s regulation-making power, provided for in Section 11(5) and (6) of the Local Government Act 2000, which enables the Secretary of State to make regulations prescribing different forms of executive arrangements.

We have just concluded a lively debate about executive arrangements, but the amendment would narrow the range of choices and executive arrangements that we can make available to authorities. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, believed that our proposal to allow local authorities to choose to operate a directly elected executive would render superfluous Section 11(5) and (6) and asked why they were necessary. They provide for new forms of executive, including where some or all of the executive members are directly elected. He is correct that they provide for new forms of elected executive arrangements. However, they also allow for any new executive arrangements.

We set out the three models in the White Paper, but other models may come forward in due course. It is important to retain the powers in Sections 11(5) and (6) so that we can respond to any local authority that feels it has a better idea or something that would facilitate better leadership. If we do not leave the power where it is, the only opportunity a local authority would have would be to wait for the next bout of primary legislation. The powers under the Act provide for flexibility, and I am sure that noble Lords would want that.

I understand that the requirement of a two-thirds majority reflects that the council would be adopting a model that was wholly innovative and which had not been specified in the Bill. That brings the opportunity to innovate as well. I hope that that answers the question.

Removing the power would reduce flexibility and future choices.

Baroness Hamwee: Rather as my noble friend Lady Scott said, I am slightly hesitant in making a point about reducing choice. But if something is so

10 July 2007 : Column 1371

innovative that it requires the unusual step of needing a two-thirds majority, it calls into question even more the Henry VIII powers to which my noble friend referred and which some of us allowed to go through in the 2000 Act. I am not asking for a response to that, but I felt the need to say it.

Baroness Andrews: I can explain it a little more clearly now. We are obviously content that a council that wishes to move to a governance model as set out in the Bill should do so by a simple majority. The model will have been set out in primary legislation, and everyone would have been able to read the intention. A model set out in the regulations under Section 11(5) of the Local Government Act 2000 would not have been through the same debate and process of contest. Therefore, we think that a two-thirds majority of the council should be required before adopting a model that is derived from regulations. That is the full explanation.

Lord Greaves: The Minister puts her finger on what alarms me about the situation. I am less alarmed that the provision has been there for seven years and nobody has done anything about it—perhaps it will be there for another seven without anybody doing anything—than by the fact that the new model of elected executives, which is set out in great detail here and clearly leads to all kinds of questions and problems, could have been provided for in a regulation under the 2000 Act.

Having said that, at this stage I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 117 not moved.]

Lord Greaves moved Amendment No. 118:

(a)”

The noble Lord said: This group has a simple aim: to allow councils to have a larger executive if they wish, and to make the size of the executive allowed proportionate to the size of the council—that is to say, a quarter of the number of councillors rather than 10 members. It is a simple matter. If the Government believe that lots of different models are a good idea, they should accept this.

Some of us are worried that the Government have a clear idea of which models work and which do not. They are trying to squeeze people into a limited number of models that work and to cause convergence between those models so that they are more similar as time goes on. In practice, a diversity of models is a good thing because, if we want to find out what is and is not good practice, or what does and does not work in different circumstances, we ought to have lots of different models and not just a straitjacket of two or three.

Having said that, this minor matter would help some councils, particularly those that have single-party executives but would like to involve opposition groups on the executive. I beg to move.

Lord Tyler: I warmly support my noble friend. My local county council in Cornwall is currently engaged—successfully, I hope—in seeking unitary status. As a

10 July 2007 : Column 1372

result, I hope that it will be taking on extra responsibilities. In those circumstances, the size of the executive could be extremely important, and it could become impossible for a number of councillors to serve on it because they would simply have too much responsibility to cover all the levels of service required in a council of that size.

There is also the issue of geographical spread. In a geographically large county such as Cornwall, if a very small executive is effectively to take power on behalf of the whole authority, it will inevitably mean that members from a small number of geographical areas will be perceived to be taking full responsibility for all council services. Therefore, a little latitude on the Government’s behalf to enable the total on the executive to increase to one-quarter of the council membership would clearly give the flexibility that, in fairness, the noble Baroness was supporting so enthusiastically just a few seconds ago.

Baroness Andrews: I am delighted that the noble Lord is so supportive of our attempt to create unitaries. I am so sorry he was not here for the first day of our Committee debate, when I could have welcomed that support. Yet I am afraid that I cannot agree with him on this amendment, which would distort what we intend to do via the models that we are putting forward.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page