Skip to main content

Local Democracy

Volume 458: debated on Tuesday 27 March 2007

On 8 February, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced the launch of an independent Commission on Local Councillors to consider the incentives and barriers to people serving as councillors and to make recommendations. The commission will consider a range of issues, including encouraging people who are able, qualified and representative to be candidates to serve as councillors. The commission is expected to report in the autumn.

I welcome the Government’s move to establish the commission. I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware of the national census of local authority councillors published recently by the Local Government Association and others, and is therefore also aware of the scale of the task faced by the commission. The census shows that at present councillors are far from fully representative of the communities they serve, that their average age is in the late 50s, and that all parties are struggling to attract and retain council candidates of calibre. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a challenge for the Government, for local government and for all political parties if those of us who care about the future of local democracy are to see it flourish?

I agree with my hon. Friend, who served with distinction as leader of his city—one of the most diverse cities in our country—for, I believe, 18 years. He is right to draw this matter to our attention. I will not list the figures from the census, but Members will gather that the pattern across the country is that councillors are not as representative of communities as we would all like them to be—although I have to say that some parties start from a better base than others.

Does the Minister agree that one of the biggest disincentives preventing people from becoming involved in local government is the feeling that their role makes no difference? Would not one of the best ways of making people feel they can make a difference as councillors be to give them back more control over local decision making and local spending, perhaps by supporting the Sustainable Communities Bill?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the ingenuity of his question, which is linked to Question 19. It is for exactly that reason that our proposals in our White Paper and in our Bill will rightly give councillors more powers—particularly in their role as ward councillors, which involves the implementation of measures such as the community call for action.

The Minister will know that the number of councillors aged 45 or less has halved in the past 20 years, from 26 per cent. in 1985 to a paltry 13.5 per cent. last year. Obviously, the introduction of education for citizenship as part of the national curriculum will help, but what other initiatives can we pursue to encourage more young people to become councillors?

I would not want to give my hon. Friend or, indeed, anyone else the impression that I was biased against people over 45—for obvious reasons—but his point is very important. Unless we can involve younger people in representing our communities, local government will not be as healthy as we would all like it to be. As well as the measures outlined in the announcement of the commission, the Government are taking a range of measures, particularly with the Department for Education and Skills, but also with other Departments, to pursue initiatives such as the Youth Parliament and other youth forums, all of which can help.

Should not the Minister acknowledge the role that his Government have played in discouraging councillors over the past 10 years? Is it not the case that too many councillors up and down the land have expressed their despair at the fact that, through their manic culture of targets, quotas and directives, the Government have completely distorted the relationship between national and local government?

In 2005-06, 5,091 circulars and directives were delivered to councils from the Government—50 per working week. The Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, with which we have dealt recently, offered the Minister more chances to be permissive to councils in terms of their leadership structure, limitations on targets and the forced abolition of patient forums, all of which he turned down. Is it not the case that those standing as councillors and wanting to be free of such wretched Government control still do so more in hope than in expectation?

I do not accept the picture that the hon. Gentleman paints. The comprehensive performance assessment has led to improvement in the quality of public services provided by local councils, but the new arrangements—part-heralded by the Bill on whose Committee the hon. Gentleman served—strip away many of those targets in the new regime and allow for the local decision making that we and the Local Government Association want.

While high standards and probity are important in the lives of local authorities, does the Minister accept that some of the activities of the Standards Board work against councils? Are not the long delays, and the fact that the Standards Board does not tell councillors about an initial complaint, worth investigating?

It is because of such representations that changes have been made to the operation and logistics of the Standards Board and to the code of conduct upon which we consulted recently and which the Committee debated. I think that my hon. Friend will find the outcome to his satisfaction.