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19 Jan 2009 : Column GC49

19 Jan 2009 : Column GC49

Grand Committee

Monday, 19 January 2009.

Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill [HL]

Bill Main Page
Copy of the Bill
Explanatory Notes
1st Report from DPC

Committee (1st Day)

3.30 pm

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Geddes): I must advise the Committee that if there is a Division in the Chamber while the Committee is sitting, we shall adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and we shall resume 10 minutes thereafter.

Clause 1: Democratic arrangements of principal local authorities

Amendment 1

Moved by Baroness Warsi

1: Clause 1, page 1, line 7, leave out “has a duty to promote” and insert “must have regard to the desirability of promoting”

Baroness Warsi: I shall speak also to Amendments 22, 59 and 60. The first group of amendments removes the duty on local councils to promote understanding of their functions and democratic arrangements and those of connected bodies. Instead it replaces that duty with a responsibility to note the desirability of doing so. That may seem like a trivial drafting point, but I believe that it sums up what is wrong with the Bill and how the Government’s approach differs from ours.

Chapter 1 is, at first glance, a fairly anodyne requirement to promote understanding and awareness of a local authority’s function. I expect that the Minister will tell the Committee that those duties are required to enshrine good practice in statute, but I argue that it is emblematic of the way in which the Government seem to be operating. In the Bill we have new duties imposed by central government but they have no real practical meaning; there is nothing substantive in the provisions. I am sure that most, if not all, local authorities promote democracy in some way or another. It is in their interests to do so. Quite simply, there is no need for central government to get involved and to direct how local authorities communicate with their populaces. It suggests to me that the Government wish to be seen to be doing something—anything—but cannot really come up with anything fresh or new, so are resorting to tinkering and meddling.

The Minister may well have been taken aback by the sheer number of amendments which have been tabled to this part of the Bill, which perhaps indicates a feeling in the Committee that much of the Bill is unnecessary and unwarranted. I have tabled Amendments 1, 22, 59 and 60, to Clauses 1, 2, 3 and 4 respectively, as a means to get discussion going on this topic. The Minister will be glad to hear that I have not sought to strike out the clauses altogether. The sentiment that local authorities should promote understanding and awareness of their own arrangements and those of bodies which have an impact on the everyday lives of the people is not a difficult one to agree with. We on

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these Benches agree that local people should be able to access information readily about the services which they use and the authorities which provide them.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, summed up the position neatly at Second Reading when she said that failing to support the Bill should not be seen as a refusal to support democracy simply,

There is no reason for it to be a duty. That is simply government posturing, saying, “Look, we’re improving local services because it says so in this piece of legislation”. Democratic engagement among local people will be boosted only when they feel that local democracy has a relevance to their lives. That means giving them a chance to exercise influence over, for example, planning law, waste management, the care they receive from local health boards or the quality of their children’s education. Only when that point is reached, when decisions are not taken by unaccountable quangos and people feel that their local representatives can make a real difference to their lives, can the Government say that they have successfully promoted local democratic arrangements. Until the Government start to act on their rhetoric, the duties in the Bill remain little more than that. The only practical effect is likely to be a new set of leaflets, dutifully produced to fulfil the obligations in the clauses and left standing in the foyers of town halls across the country. Unless the Government are willing to trust local authorities to exercise control over their functions and those of connected authorities, the duties in Clauses 1 to 4 are pointless—and pointless duties should not be enshrined in legislation. I beg to move.

Lord Tope: I start with two declarations: first, to pass on the apologies of my noble friend Lady Hamwee, who unfortunately is too ill to be here today—which means that she must be very ill because she wants very much to take part in the Bill. Secondly, I declare once again my interest as having served continuously as a councillor in the London Borough of Sutton for nearly 35 years. We made clear our position on the Bill during the Second Reading debate—I am grateful to the noble Baroness for quoting a very good summary of it given then by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. It is not that we are against the promotion of democracy; exactly the opposite is true. It is rather, as I said at Second Reading, that we see it as being properly the role of local authorities. It is for them to decide best how to do it in terms of their local circumstances, the nature of the local area and so on. It really is not the business of central government to prescribe, even to the extent and detail that is being done here, how local authorities should do it. As we go on through Committee, and particularly as we delve into the many amendments to be moved by my noble friend Lord Greaves, who has much experience of these matters, we will see just how difficult it becomes when you get into the detail of promoting local democracy, petition schemes and so on.

I turn to the four amendments in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Hamwee. The first three, Amendments 2, 23 and 61, would insert the words “to use reasonable endeavours”. They retain the promotion

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of democracy as a duty, but not as an absolute duty. That is qualified by Amendment 21, which refers to,

That is an extremely important consideration these days for any local authority. If they are to meet these duties, they must have regard to the amount of expenditure that it is reasonable to incur in doing so. It is a necessary qualification that should appear in the Bill. The Explanatory Notes give some indication of government estimates of expenditure. I am unclear as to how that estimate is to be translated into increased grant to local authorities to meet costs, especially for those London boroughs which are floor authorities, as most of them are, and receive no increase in grant for any and all purposes.

The purpose of our series of amendments is to make the promotion of democracy not an absolute but a qualified duty—“to use reasonable endeavours”. It is entirely right that local authorities should promote democracy—rather less right that government should insist on it—but, as always, it must be balanced by the need to assess the expenditure necessary to achieve the purpose desired.

Lord Greaves: I shall speak to the Conservative amendments in this group. I am likely to support them. Since this is the first time I have spoken in this Committee, I declare my interest as an elected member of Pendle Borough Council and, as a consequence of that, of various other bodies. I am not terribly excited by the wording of the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi,

which sounds as though it was written by civil servants rather than politicians. However, I understand what she is getting at. Throughout Part 1, I am going to be very critical, particularly of this chapter about promoting democratic involvement in various things and of the petitions section.

Since these things get written down, I ought to make it clear that I am not against public involvement in local government. I have been promoting it for the past 40 years, particularly when members of the Minister’s party were denouncing it as being entirely wrong in principle and in practice, and liable to undermine the whole fabric of local government, indeed, the whole fabric of society. It is excellent that the Government are now converted to the cause, but it is bad that they think that the way to promote local involvement is by detailed, top-down edicts of the kind that appear in the Bill.

If anybody doubts what I am saying, I shall call my noble friend Lord Tope in evidence. A very long time ago, just after he had been elected as the Member of Parliament for Sutton and Cheam at a famous by-election in 1972, a pamphlet was issued, purportedly written by him, called Liberals and the Community. It was written by three of us who were promoting the cause at that stage and because my noble friend had become an MP, we thought it was sensible to put his name on the cover. Many other Members of the Committee can testify that I have been campaigning on these matters

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for many years. I was hoping that the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, would be here. He said he would be. Perhaps I shall call him in evidence when he appears.

What is Chapter 1 about? The Government want to give local authorities a duty to promote. My noble friend suggests they should “use reasonable endeavours” and the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, suggests they should,

There are five pages of detailed legislation on the promotion of democracy. They are about telling people how the system of local government in their area works in the hope that that will get them more involved. They are about producing a map of the local structures. I have no objection to that; it is a sensible idea. In most places nowadays, everything is so complex that very few people have the slightest idea about who is responsible for what. In two-tier areas, it is even worse. There is a plethora of local quangos, partnerships, forums, local authority companies and all kinds of bodies, all of which have something to do and form part of the system of local government. If you asked me to write down the system in my own area, I do not think that I could; I certainly could not get an A grade in an examination on it because it is so complex. Some parts of it I deliberately keep well away from because there is a limit to what you can do.

3.45 pm

I have no objection to the Government putting a duty on a local authority to write it all down, but that does not require five pages of detailed legislation or the extraordinary procedures set down here for how a district will relate to a county and how everybody else will relate to each other. The Government must understand that simply writing it down and saying what the structure is does not create local democratic involvement, which is fundamentally a “small p” political process. It is about people campaigning and people caring for their area and getting involved. It is about active involvement.

There was an item yesterday on the “Politics Show” in the north-west, which most Members of the Committee will not have seen because it was on the north-west bit that nobody sees. The item was about what is going on in the Wirral. They interviewed people who are agitating, running huge campaigns and really getting involved in a big way because it appears—according to the television programme—that Wirral council is setting about taking a hatchet to a lot of local community facilities. It is closing community centres, libraries and swimming pools; that is what the programme said, anyhow. I have no detailed knowledge of that. So lots of articulate local residents, who are not particularly middle class, are all getting involved, all expressing their anger and all organising campaigns—all very worked up, agitated and involved.

The way to really get people involved is to close down things that they value. Then you get public involvement on a big scale. Of course, that is not what the Government think and want—but what should we do about this? What I would really like to do, as I think would the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, and my noble friend, is to kick out this part of the Bill and at the very least put it into the review and consultation

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that the Government are undertaking on community empowerment and citizen involvement, or whatever the latest buzz phrases are. I think that it is citizen empowerment, but I do not know. A lot of this was going to be in a community empowerment Bill, which is no longer coming to us. That is why we have the dregs of it in front of us now. They should take them back, put them into that, look at it all as a whole and reflect on what the proper role is for central government here.

If central government promotes ideas and puts out useful advice rather than statutory guidance, encouraging local government to spread best practice, we will get a large amount of this happening voluntarily, and we will get it happening in a much better way than if we simply laid down national rules and regulations. One reason why it will be much better is that it will vary from area to area and from authority to authority. Varying what is happening is the real way in which to find out what is best. You do not find out what is best by laying down national blueprints that everyone has to carry out. You find out what is best by letting people do their own thing on the ground, once you have laid down the basic principle.

I do not think that we have any real chance of getting this kicked out. I hope that the Government are listening and will take it back, but if they will not we will have to try to improve it, accepting all the risks but at least making sure—

Lord Woolmer of Leeds: In introducing his remarks, the noble Lord said that he supported the amendments in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, as well as those in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Tope. Surely they are basically different, because the Conservative proposal is to take away a duty to do anything and simply have regard to desirability, whereas the Liberal amendment maintains a duty but says that the authority should use “reasonable endeavours”. Surely they are fundamentally different approaches.

The noble Lord cannot support both the Conservative and the Liberal amendment. Which does he actually support?

Lord Greaves: Those who tabled the amendments will speak for themselves, but my view is that both are based on the same underlying premise that this legislation is too prescriptive. Both are probing ways in which it could be made less prescriptive and more flexible.

Lord Borrie: I would like to follow the last few comments in which a question was asked of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. It occurred to me as the debate moved on that the constructive amendment of the Liberal Democrats is quite reasonable. I am not sure that it is really useful, but it is certainly constructive to insert “reasonable endeavours” before “duty to promote”. However, the Conservative amendment is completely destructive and not positive at all. I quite agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, that it is not a drafting amendment: it is not. It is a destructive amendment because it would remove completely the duty to promote and would insert words that may as well not be there at all. It states that the local authority “must have regard to the desirability of promoting”, which means

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that anyone can do anything they like. You might as well suggest that the whole clause should go—not just Clause 1 but all the other clauses to which amendments in this group apply.

Neither the Conservatives nor the Liberal Democrats have admitted in this debate or at Second Reading that at the moment, local government and local democracy are at a pretty low ebb in terms of public regard. It is not as if there is tremendous public regard for local government and tremendous participation, other than in the example given by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. When something is being closed down, everybody turns up at a meeting so long as it is reasonably well arranged, but in the normal course of things, the people’s vote at local elections is lamentable. I would have thought that other Governments—when in power as distinct from being merely potential Governments—would realise that something needed to be done in the form of legislation. There should be a duty to promote local democracy and a duty to do various other detailed things. I would not go so far as the Government in laying things down in such detail in the Bill—a point of criticism which I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Greaves—but there should be a duty to promote local democracy. Increasing the ways and means of public participation in local affairs is wholly desirable. I do not see why any of the amendments in this first group should be passed.

Lord Greaves: Will the noble Lord comment on an interesting situation? The amount of involvement by people in local government and in local councils in particular is greater now than it has ever been. That is true in almost every local authority, yet people’s regard for local authorities is, as far as we can tell, at a pretty low ebb and possibly lower than it has ever been. How does the noble Lord square those two facts?

Lord Borrie: I find it difficult to believe what the noble Lord said. I dare say that if you choose two particular dates you could argue that interest in local democracy has increased, but in general that does not seem to be so at all. I would ask the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, to establish more clearly the point that he seeks to make.

Lord Greaves: The number of local initiatives that councils carry out nowadays—to hold meetings and set up forums and action groups—is higher than it has ever been and there is no doubt that more people than ever are taking part in them. In many places, there is so much consultation going on that people are suffering from consultation fatigue.

Finally, I do not know what proportion of local authorities not only allow but actively encourage people to go along to committee or authority meetings and take part in agenda items that interest them, but I guess that it would be a third. It used to be zero. The amount of and facilities for involvement are rightly higher than they have ever been, partly because people like us have been campaigning for them. The more people take part, the less regard they have for what they see when they do.

Lord Borrie: I now understand better what the noble Lord is saying. If he is saying that there are now many more examples of participation and encouragement

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thereof that one can point to than even 20 or 50 years ago, he is absolutely right. However, they are only examples. They cannot apply across the country as a whole. There is no legislation that requires all local authorities to do that. It is surely desirable, however, that the example of some local authorities should be followed. I come back to my basic point that participation in the vital matter of local elections is lamentably low.

Baroness Maddock: I declare a couple of interests: first, I am a borough councillor in Berwick-upon-Tweed, which is unfortunately due to be abolished at the end of March; secondly, I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association.

I am afraid that I find it difficult to believe that the legislation will make a huge difference to what we are talking about. We want to see more people involved and local government held in higher esteem. Oh, that it were that simple. It is honestly naive to believe that all that is written here will make that happen. It will not. I therefore hope that when the Minister responds to our discussions this afternoon she can explain to us where is the evidence base that the Government have used to bring forward this legislation that they think will make a difference to what happens in local democracy. We are going to spend a lot of time here and, at the end, it will be difficult to see a huge difference.

I would also like to hear from the Minister how the Government will monitor whether this will work. I see a problem with the Government repeatedly coming forward with legislation. We have an amendment to this Bill that amends an Act that was passed only in the last Session of Parliament. Something is wrong somewhere if we have to do this all the time. Nothing makes local government life more difficult than the continuous legislation and guidance that authorities must deal with. I say that from the heart as someone who has been a councillor for a borough that represents only 26,000 people and therefore has few officers to deal with the amount of legislation coming out. I would be interested to hear if the Minister has compelling evidence that this will make a difference.

Lord Graham of Edmonton: People declare their interests in speaking to these matters. I speak as yesterday’s man. My active time in local government was the 1960s; by the 1970s, I had moved on to other things. Of course, I continued to take an interest in these matters. The Minister is entitled to feel somewhat aggrieved that the Government and the Bill are attempting to tackle a problem that we all know exists. I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, says about there being more opportunities and more initiatives to engage. He may well have evidence that, as a result, local democracy is now better or stronger, but it is not.

4 pm

The Bill attempts to strengthen local democracy. The Government may have got it wrong or perhaps the evidence—which I am sure the Minister will quote and read into the record—can be questioned or challenged. But I cannot believe that the Government, purely for the sake of producing legislation, have produced this

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Bill simply to fill in time or to provide work for civil servants and Ministers. They want to respond to the evidence that there is a need for more people to be involved in running their councils.

I am proud to live in Loughton. The leader of my county council sits on the Benches opposite. I have a high regard and respect for both his work and that of the county council. I am sure that there will be good illustrations of when people do not need to rely on the weapons in this group of amendments, but, sadly, there will be others. Some people have a vested interest in democracy being asleep more than it being lively. Some people have sat on a council for a long time. I wonder how long the noble Lord, Lord Tope, has been on his council.

Lord Tope: I have been on my council for 35 years.

Lord Graham of Edmonton: Some people have sat on a council for so long that, if they do not resent it, they do not like the challenge. The Government should be commended for saying that, in 2009, there needs to be a stimulus. People may rearranged words and put emphasis on different words, but we are all about the same. Some people want to do something, while others want to do nothing. Doing nothing might be the answer, but the Government are entitled to say that, based on the evidence, there is a need to do something.

My noble friend has pointed out that the test of democracy may be the number of people who vote. I would be surprised if evidence can be produced to show that, consistently, uniformly, throughout the country, there has been a steady rise in the number of people who vote, and we should forget the outcome of the voting. An aspect of the Bill that I applaud is that it may encourage people in the communities we represent to wonder what they can do to make their democracy more vibrant.

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