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I sit as joint president with the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, on London Councils, which represents, as its name implies, the London councils. I do not think a claim can be made that any one part of the country which is dominated by one political party is better off than another. During the past 40 years, the Government of the day would have been entitled to come forward with legislation to remedy the problem. There is a problem and it will not go away. The Government are entitled not just to defend their stance, but also to have the endorsement of this Committee and the House to do what they can.

Lord Smith of Leigh: I declare an interest as a councillor for a mere 31 years. I also sit on various regional and sub-regional bodies, although I have just resigned as chairman of 4NW. I also sit on the regional development agency, on which I think that the noble Lord, Lord Tope, has tabled an amendment. I believe that all sides honestly are saying that there are problems about local democracy. Members of the Committee on the opposite Benches have referred to two ways in which people can get involved. One is participation, which can mean two things. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is right. The opportunity for people to get

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active in influencing local affairs probably has never been higher. Never in my 31 years have we been involved in more local committees and local activities to give people an opportunity to have a say on things. Unfortunately, those people who get really involved are a minority. Probably, the same people who get interested in one issue then get involved in other aspects of consultation. So there is a need to drive up those numbers and, again, we would want to share best practice.

My noble friend mentioned voting, which is a problem both locally and nationally. Whatever we do locally, we need to bear that in mind. In the case mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, there may be higher participation. But, inevitably, that is the nature of making decisions in local government. People have to make tough decisions.

As many Members of the Committee may know, recently, I was involved in running a referendum in Greater Manchester on improvements in public transport, but it became a referendum just on whether there should be a congestion charge. There was a 55 per cent turnout. In particular, young people, who do not normally take part in local elections, voted. Whereas the average turnout in Greater Manchester probably is about 30 per cent, for this it was almost twice that figure. On an issue about which people really feel involved and feel that they can influence, we can get participation in terms of voting. But I am not a great advocate of referendums, particularly after that experience.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, referred to the complexities of local governance. We are not talking about only local government, but about getting involved in partnerships and other agencies, and about collaborating with other authorities, which is probably for the better. This Bill includes something on that. I wonder whether it makes sense to do things beyond local boundaries for the good of the people who we are elected to represent. These things are complicated, but we need to explain them in ordinary language that people can understand and not in the language of the Bill. Members of the Committee have mentioned the great danger of the Government trying to be too specific. But let us be honest and acknowledge that there is a problem which we must try to tackle.

Lord Woolmer of Leeds: I cannot match the distinguished lengths of service of other Members of the Committee, but I served on local authorities in west Yorkshire for a number of years in the 1970s and, like my noble friend Lord Graham, I have maintained a close interest. To some extent, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and I am not too depressed about the desire of people to get involved in local government, local institutions and so on. If anything, there is a growing desire to get involved, which is not least helped by the internet and the ease of two-way communication. In a sense, we could be on the verge of a step change in involvement.

I agree with the Government on the sheer number of bodies which operate at a local level. That is due to the enormous decentralisation of a lot of decisions, which is to be welcomed. The number of things done by national government many years ago has reduced enormously. Clauses 2, 3 and 4 list many of those

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bodies. I will not read them all because it would take too long, but they include national parks, police authorities, waste disposal bodies, primary care trusts, joint waste authorities, magistrates, various monitoring boards, court boards, youth offending boards, and so on.

One of the problems that people face is, oddly, with the sheer complexity of all those organisations, as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said. The Government are right in seeking to find a way in which some coherence is offered to people in local communities to explain what all these bodies are and how people who want to can get involved, in a common approach. If 20 or 30 bodies are all putting material out, all in a quite different way, from completely different angles and with completely different levels of professionalism and different degrees of intent, then you get one thing. If a local council or local authority is charged with ensuring that a cohesive approach is presented to people, so they know what all the bodies are and know, in a common language, what they do and how people can get involved, that will be a step forward.

Like noble Lords opposite, I agree that there is no panacea in that; it does not necessarily guarantee anything. But the current lack of coherence and the disparate way in which these things are presented or not presented creates a very confusing picture. What tends to happen is that a lot of people get involved in an issue because it happens to be very important to them at that time, but they do not get involved in other things. I suspect that many people get onto local authorities in that way—they used to, in my time. People would get involved in a local action group, become motivated and then get onto a local authority. I suspect that the same thing happens in many other ways.

The Government are on to something here. There is a problem and it would make a lot of sense to try to improve on the situation. I suspect that, if local authorities are given the duty to set matters out coherently, in a single manner, on a single website or a related website and have to present to people in a meaningful way, using a common language, how all these bodies are, how they all relate, what they do, how people could get involved and how it affects them, it would lead to a more coherent monitoring of what those bodies do. There would be a lot more comparison; people would notice that one body was getting a lot more people involved than another body, and ask why that was happening. At the moment, nobody sits down and reflects on that. If you are really concerned with magistrates’ courts, you are greatly interested in how they operate, but you do not really ask too much about what is happening with local primary care trusts or other bodies.

There is more behind the Government’s objective, as long as one is not carried away by what it can achieve in itself. As I understand the Liberal Democrats concerns, they are that we should not raise people’s hopes too much about what an organisational or institutional change can bring about. The Government are on to something; there is an issue here, and it is best addressed in a coherent way. I, for one, applaud the Government’s efforts to do so in this Bill.

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Lord Best: I declare my interest as president of the Local Government Association. It may be worth reminding ourselves what the representative bodies of local authority government say about this—the LGA and the LGIU, to which some of us are indebted, because it services the All-Party Parliamentary Local Government Group. These bodies representing local government are fairly clear on their position; they are not opposed to, and in principle support, a new duty on local authorities of a kind envisaged by this Bill. However, they are very anxious about this becoming prescriptive and about the already good examples of local authorities doing their own thing very well being hampered by central government having clear ideas that it must be done in particular ways.

The response to the question, “Why bother?”—why bother that central government has put a duty of this kind into a Bill?—can be both negative and positive. The positive response is that it sends out a signal to local authorities that this is a more than respectable thing to spend your time and your ratepayers’ money on. It is important that local government takes seriously the issue of empowering local people and promoting democracy. It gives a licence to people to get on with it and to fend off objection from those who ask, “Why are they spending our money, telling us how we should be better represented locally? What’s all this publicity and campaigning on behalf of empowerment?”.

4.15 pm

The Bill places a duty on local authorities, giving them a positive backdrop in taking the matter seriously and spending money on it. It also says to them, “If you are not sure of the ways in which this may happen, listen to the Improvement and Development Agency and to organisations such as the LGA which is producing good advice and trying to share good experience across councils. Listen, and take notice and an interest in this whole issue. The negative side is that you may need fall-back powers for that tiny minority who always let the side down”.

Whatever it is one wants local government to do, the majority get on with it sometimes more speedily and in a more exciting way, but one or two laggards are left behind. By giving local authorities a duty to get on with something that a handful will never get around to merely puts power into the hands of central government when needed. The overarching message is that if there is acceptance in principle from the local authority representative bodies, so also is there a fear that central government may take a good thing too far and get immersed in some of the detail, which would be very counterproductive.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): That was an excellent start to our discussions on the Bill. I welcome a new cast in the shape of the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield. It is very nice to see him on the Front Bench alongside the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi. I am sorry that we do not have the pleasure of seeing the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, today, and I hope that she is better by Wednesday.

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I thank all Members of the Committee who took part in that debate. The range of contributions was wide and it was important to expose complex issues, such as what we mean by “participation” and “influence”. I will not apologise for the fact that my speaking note is rather long, because I, too, want to expose some of those issues.

I am very grateful for the support of my noble friends and for their challenging questions on what was said by both opposition parties. I was grateful for the contribution of my noble friend Lord Best on where local government organisations stand. It was salutary to hear that. However, I am disappointed because I know that the accumulated weight of experience and wisdom around the Committee, particularly on the opposition Benches, does not make for great understanding of the intentions behind the Bill, which we have tried to express. There is a definite consensus around the Committee that these provisions are worth making but that it is a question of how we make them and how we balance the generally enabling framework that we want to create with the concern about some of the detail.

My noble friend Lord Borrie was right to call the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, to account for his response to the two sets of amendments. The noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, said that this is not a trivial drafting point, and indeed it is not. Amendments 2, 23 and 6 and Amendments 1, 22, 59 and 60 are different. The latter group in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, and the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, is destructive. The noble Baroness said that she would be convinced when local people felt local government to be relevant. I would argue that that is exactly the point of this clause and this Bill. However, in order to perceive something as relevant, you have to have the information that enables you to understand how those decisions that affect your lives are made and what you can do about them.

Ultimately, we are not only about enabling people to engage more directly and influentially with local government, but about revitalising the base of local democracy and the services on which people depend. This is not an emblematic Bill as the noble Baroness suggests. It is not insubstantial. It addresses serious issues and ways of doing things. We have the balance right. The degree of detail—the how—will be left to local authorities. This clause and subsequent clauses create the framework to build on the best and let local authorities decide how they can make this work effectively in their local community for local people.

We do not agree that there is no need for a duty on local authorities to promote democracy, that it is unnecessary and onerous or that they are already able to do so. I shall explain why on the basis of the evidence. I have been grateful for this early discussion of the complexity that has emerged in local government in response to the many different challenges over the past decade, not least in the ways of doing things and emerging issues such as climate change and how to work with the third sector in the delivery of services. We have created a much more complex and dynamic landscape. The most telling point in this debate was made by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, when he said that he does not understand and cannot draw a map of his own local authority’s decision-making structures.

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Lord Greaves: I did not say that. I said that I cannot draw a map of the system of local governance. I can draw a map of the system of the local authority of which I am a member, but I doubt whether I can do that for the county council and everything else. That was the point that the noble Lord, Lord Woolmer, was making.

Baroness Andrews: I do not think that undermines my point because the Bill addresses the relationships and the flow of information between partner authorities. That is why it is so important.

I return to the question of why we need a duty and whether the form of words “to have regard” would be sufficient. It would not be sufficient. I return to the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, about evidence. Why did the Councillors Commission think it was vital to have a duty? The noble Lord, Lord Best, said that the duty to promote democracy should be recognised as a core function of local authorities. The LGA supports the duty on the basis that it is not overly prescriptive and does not add to a council’s administrative and bureaucratic burden. I shall need to be able to reinforce that in what I say and put certain things on the record.

Commenting on the commitment to take the duty forward in response to the Councillors Commission report, the LGA stated that the duty to promote democracy recognises and reinforces councillors’ community leadership and is welcome, and that it would ensure that the duty would not be overly prescriptive and would be based on council best practice. We concur with that, and I hope that we will be able to demonstrate that that is the approach we have adopted.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, suggested that we should put—

Baroness Maddock: The Minister is emphasising that the Government are not going to be overprescriptive, yet later we come to the clause where they have the right to give as much guidance as they like to local authorities about what they do.

Baroness Andrews: When we come to that clause, we will discuss the nature of that guidance, what might go into it, why it is important to have that power and why local government will be helped by it. We can debate that when we come to it.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, suggested that we should throw all these back to the process in the community engagement White Paper. This grew out of that White Paper because the Councillors Commission formed the basis of it and what we took forward. In addition, the Local Government Information Unit, which is not shy about challenging our proposals, welcomes the duty to promote democracy and recognises the influence on these duties of two independent reviews: the All-Party Parliamentary Local Government Group’s inquiry into the role of local councillors and the Councillors Commission.

What is the accumulated evidence that all those inquiries and bodies have unveiled? The Councillors Commission review recognised the importance of awareness of what councillors do. The evidence for action, presented to us by Jane Roberts, was overwhelming.

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An Ipsos MORI survey for the Local Government Association shows that only 32 per cent of people know, or know a fair amount about, what their council does. The two-tier authorities are in a more complex position. Research by Hands in 2007 showed a lack of awareness of the role of the councillor and confusion with the almighty “counsellor”. Struggling with that confusion is at heart of this proposal. My noble friend Lord Borrie spoke about the accumulated evidence of voter turn-out, about which we are all deeply concerned. The All-Party Parliamentary Local Government Group, in its March 2007 inquiry into of the role of councillors, identified a lack of awareness of the councillor’s role as a key barrier to attracting potential councillors and proposed greater action from local authorities in attracting people to stand as local councillors. Perhaps I may sum this up with a quote from Jane Roberts’ report:

“People are unlikely to feel a sense of engagement with something they do not understand. The starting point for facilitating engagement locally is through communication”.

In response, the commission’s primary recommendation was that there should be a statutory duty on all principal authorities to facilitate democratic engagement by proactively disseminating clear and accessible information on how local governance works and what councils and councillors do; by facilitating more active civic participation; and by raising interest in and promoting the role of councillor, how to become a councillor and the activities of elected members.

We have specified some duties, but local authorities are able to determine the most appropriate ways to fulfil them for their local area. I am sure that they will build on the embedded work that already takes place to promote elections and community empowerment, using the techniques that they have already established. They will work with different partners in different ways.

We have made specific effort to keep the amount of detail in the legislation to a minimum. We have not specified, other than very broadly, the information that needs to be provided. However, we have had to build in safeguards. Much of the detail is about protecting local authorities rather than getting them to follow some strict, detailed prescription. We are very much aware of this.

My noble friend Lord Woolmer said that people grasp single issues because they either do not want to, or cannot, wrestle with the complex interrelationships of what the local authority does. Often, some of the solutions to those single issues can be achieved only if one understands the context in which the decision or situation concerned is being worked out.

Taking all this together, we want to encourage local government to be more confident and ensure that people know about local government processes and how to get involved. We want it to be available across the country. We have some outstanding local authorities which do excellent work. I know at first hand the work that is done in Essex, for example, which is the patch of the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield. It is an example to many parts of the country. However, as my noble friends have said, many local councils do not do this work very well and some not at all. That is the principal

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issue that we have to address. We must have a genuinely fair way for people to access information and, therefore, democracy.

The Government are very cautious about imposing new duties on local government because we know the consequences. We have seen a huge improvement in services due to investment and changing practices. That is to the great credit of local government. There has been a massive increase in the quality of service, but, as my noble friend Lord Borrie pointed out, paradoxically, this has not been followed by a corresponding rise in the reputation of local government or the respect in which it is held. These are serious and debilitating difficulties if we look forward to what local government has to achieve in the next 50 years.

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Among other things, that obviously means that local government cannot recruit new members easily. It is neither young enough nor diverse enough to represent the full community and is more likely to be criticised than celebrated for what it is doing. That divergence between what the community thinks it needs and what it thinks that local government is doing is growing. That is not only of concern to this party or this Government. It is a serious issue which we must address.

We have moved away from swathes of targets for local authorities and towards local area agreements and local determination. We have moved from ring-fencing to flexible budgets. We can see the result in better relationships between central and local government. All that is excellent, and this is a complementary step to it. We want to make it transparent and clear, and enable councillors to do so, that the council is intent on working with the local community in terms of informing people about the actual processes as well as the likely outcomes, the work of councillors and how local people can get a grip on what is going on.

The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, asked how we could guarantee that there will be a difference. Well, one difference is that we ought to be able to guarantee that people in Pendle will have a map, a central point of information, an access point that will enable them to understand more about these relationships and how a democratic opportunity exists not just in the local authority but in the partnerships and partner authorities—to which we will come in later amendments—to influence change and get involved.

It may take some time, but we will know if the ultimate goal is working when we start to see a greater number and diversity of people getting involved and standing for civic roles; not just councillors but a different sort of person standing for the local PCT or PTA. We must challenge the sort of usual suspects who are likely to come forward.

The IDeA’s biannual national census of local authorities and councils will help to track the effect. The quarterly citizenship survey includes questions on civic participation and activism. We can use that for measuring achievement against PSA15, which is about citizenship involvement. We will track it through the comprehensive areas assessment, where local authorities have responded. This will not completely disappear into the ether.

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The duties set out in Clauses 1, 2, 3 and 4 are therefore placed on the local authorities. We are talking about a genuine culture change, but it is not a new concept. Local government has responded positively to the duty to involve in the 2007 Act, which comes into force in April. In the Bill we are taking the next step to ensure that people not only have the opportunity to be involved, but to act on that because they know how to. As I said, it is about building on the best work and creating opportunities. Essentially, however, it means that, as the Councillors Commission recognised, the duty itself requires a duty rather than an aspiration. That will mean that it is explicit and clear in its requirements, fair to all, consistently and effectively applied, and affordable. That is why we have framed the duties as we have, and why we are providing funding to all local authorities to allow them to discharge these duties properly.

In place of that, Members of the Committee opposite have reached for a much weaker formula in Amendment 21 that gives a get-out clause to councils so that they can argue that the costs of this new role are simply too expensive. Well, I have ensured that the Bill allocates a reasonable sum, which has been worked out in conjunction with the advice of local authorities themselves, so that the councils can meet this new duty. They will receive the sum in their settlements once the duty is in place. Much of the work will be embedded in, and build on, what is already happening. It will be up to local authorities to use that money in the most effective way possible, so an additional measure in the Bill to determine whether costs are reasonable is unnecessary.

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