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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes): The Bill is part of a long-term radical change for local government--a change that is, I believe, essential if local government is to fulfil its responsibilities to local people in the future, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) said, its potential. This is not change for change's sake; it is happening because the present Government, unlike the last, believe in local government. We believe in local democracy, and we want to strengthen it, to raise standards of local services, and to give people a real say in what their councils are doing.
After 18 years of denigration from the Conservative party, local government in its present form simply cannot deliver effectively to local people. Fundamental change is needed. Our previous legislation, together with this Bill, will tackle all the key areas that must be tackled if councils are to work better. Best value and beacon councils are driving up standards of public service; the power of well-being underlines the overarching responsibility for improving the quality of life of local people. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner) that we have already said we are prepared to use section 150 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 in respect of new well-being powers. We shall discuss that in the finance Green Paper.
The community planning provisions emphasise the potential of local authorities as strategic leaders. The new constitutions will allow better, more effective, quicker decision making and the Bill will build into the structure of local government an important and detailed mechanism for the effective scrutiny of that decision making. We will also institute a robust ethical framework to ensure that councils are not only above reproach, but seen to be above reproach.
A number of Conservative Members questioned whether the case for change had been made. The case for change is obvious. I want to make three points in particular, on the first two of which I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell). The first relates to the need to involve local people to redress the democratic deficit. We should start from the point that we cannot claim a mandate in local government if only 10 per cent. of people--and, we have heard, 6 per cent. in parts of Liverpool--are voting for their local councillors. We need to strengthen local government: that is the first main objective.
Mr. Curry: If the Minister has set a figure that validates a mandate, will she tell us what figure would be required in a referendum to validate a decision to change the structure of local government?
Secondly, we must improve standards of public service. In doing so, we must ask ourselves whether the present variation in council standards is acceptable. The top 25 per cent. of councils are excellent, and they are certainly not Tory councils. As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman),
The third issue is the current system. We heard a considerable defence of that system today, and also considerable criticism of what some Members see as the potential for less transparency in the new arrangements. Let us take a moment to consider what the current system involves. Under the current system, reports are taken to committee. Who decides the agenda of that committee meeting? It is the chair of the committee, in consultation with officers. There is no accountability. No one knows what has been left off the agenda. No one knows what is not included in reports: for example, options that have been considered, but discarded. Different party groups meet before committees and decide their position.
The reports do the rounds; the same report goes to committee after committee. All that time, committee chairs are meeting through the day and evening with officers and selected members, making decisions. Where is the scrutiny in that system? Where is the access for the public and the press? It is a bureaucratic, slow and unresponsive system that is opaque and inflexible. I defy anyone to say that any modern organisation starting from scratch would organise itself in that way.
Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) and the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), argued that executives should be made to meet in public. That fails to recognise the real world and what is happening under the current committee system.
The meeting of the executive will not be a committee because executives will be individually, not collectively, responsible. If executives met in public, it would not challenge the integrity of our proposals. However, where executives have decided to meet in public, this is what is happening. They have a pre-meeting in private, which is not minuted, or divulged to the public. The public meeting then takes place in a short time. The minutes that come out of it are equally short. It is a way of closing access to information by the public. Members who argue for public executive meetings on the ground of secrecy are not taking into account what will happen. They have lost the plot. The real mechanism for openness in the arrangements is scrutiny.
My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions talked about those measures. Hon. Members are right: structure of itself will not deliver all that we seek to achieve. Culture and the way that structure is used is equally important. The views of Opposition Members and some of my hon. Friends seem to suggest that they do not trust local councillors to embrace a change of culture and to be more open with their electorate.
Nothing in the structure inhibits openness; quite the opposite. Everything in the structure requires openness. It requires scrutiny in public for the first time, calling executive members to answer questions in public, calling residents--local people--to give their views or to be members of scrutiny committees, and calling expert witnesses to comment on executive policy and decisions.
Effective scrutiny is crucial, but I wonder why hon. Members who have made points of dissent ably tonight and on many other occasions believe that, when local authority councillors get the hang of scrutiny, they will not be able to deliver the challenge to the executive as effectively as some hon. Members in the Chamber.
Mr. Waterson: May I explain? That is not the point. The point is why the Minister will not trust people to choose between that system and the system that they are probably operating perfectly well at the moment?
Ms Hughes: I do not think that that is very good at all. The hon. Gentleman has missed the point. The system at the moment is not working very well. Most particularly--it is one of the telling points--the current system is not working effectively from the point of view of local people, who cannot find out what is going on. They cannot get access. If Opposition Members think that reading the average minutes of a committee meeting tells anyone anything about the real decisions that are being made behind closed doors in local councils, they are more naive than I thought.
The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) said that there would be no pre-scrutiny of executive decisions. That is a travesty. The Bill makes it clear that, at any time, any member of an overview and scrutiny committee, including co-opted members, can demand that an executive member or officer appear, put any item on the scrutiny committee's agenda and call executive members to account to explain precisely not only what they are doing, but what they are planning to do.
Overview and scrutiny committees can initiate policy. They can make recommendations either to the executive or to the full council. The Bill makes it quite clear that they can look not only into the business of the executive, but into any council matter and even matters that are not the direct function of the council.
Ms Hughes: The provision will enable scrutiny committees to raise issues and to discuss with executive members their intentions before they have taken decisions. It will therefore enable them to consider an issue before the process leading to a decision has even started. It is through scrutiny, area committees and full council that there will be important and challenging roles for non-executive members.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) that scrutiny committees are important and need to be given teeth to hold the executive to account. What we cannot do--it is surprising that the request is made when we are also hearing calls not to constrain councils--is to tell them how they will deploy resources on scrutiny committees. However, we shall strongly recommend in our guidance that councillors consider separate officer support and that scrutiny committees are properly resourced.
The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) said that the debate on section 28 is not about tolerance. He is right--it is about prejudice. Let us set the record straight. Section 28 bites on the actions of local authorities. It does not apply to schools, although many teachers and governors have thought that it does. Independent research has revealed that. I am glad that the penny on that has finally dropped for the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson).
Let us be clear that that legislation singles out homosexual people for differential treatment and forces local authorities to discriminate against them. It is blatantly divisive and stigmatising, and it feeds the attitudes, and leads to the experiences, that were so poignantly described by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward).
Today, we saw some of the contortions that Conservative Members attempt in trying to portray themselves as new friends to local government. They talk about "A New Approach to Local Government: Bringing Common Sense to Your Local Council", but the problem is that they have a credibility gap. They introduced the poll tax, but they ditched it. They introduced compulsory competitive tendering, but they ditched it. They introduced capping, but they ditched that. Only 27 per cent. of councillors today are Tories. They say that they want a healthy mix, but the numbers of women and ethnic minority councillors are pitiful.
The Government present the best future for local government. We are investing in the local services that hard-working families need. Real improvement in the quality of life and in local public services needs dynamic responsible councils, and the Bill will deliver that.