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Local Authority Devolution and Powers

Volume 559: debated on Wednesday 27 February 2013

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Government to publish a list of the powers of local councils and a code of conduct defining the degree of autonomy attached to those powers and areas where a council may act autonomously; to create a mechanism to identify and adjudicate on breaches of the code by either central or local government; and for connected purposes.

Given where we are in the parliamentary timetable, one would have to be wholly ignorant or severely optimistic to assume that the Bill I propose stands any chance whatever of becoming law—this year. Although as a Lib Dem I am equipped by necessity with boundless reserves of cheery optimism, I have no expectation of seeing the Bill mature into legislation. So confident am I of seeing it strangled at birth that I did think of calling it the “Local Government and Futile Measures Bill”, only to realise that the additional phrase probably applied to much of the legislation in this place. I am far from disheartened, however, because such events, apart from seeming a piece of typically British, eccentric constitutional indulgence, or useful occupational therapy for Back Benchers, can have an effect, by putting, or keeping, on the agenda important key themes. My last foray in this role was an attempt to introduce a Bill to enhance, or provide, democratic accountability for NHS services. The Government have now actually done that, although I would like to think that my proposals, which involved the creation of no new institutions or structures, offered a more elegant, less expensive and less complex solution than that contrived by the Government in the Health and Social Care Act 2012.

Our system is based on the supremacy of Parliament, and my Bill draws attention to the fraught relationship between local and central Government. Parliament, Brussels notwithstanding, has unfettered power, or what Lord Hailsham referred to as elective dictatorship. Local government also has powers, but they can be increased, decreased, removed or added to, fettered or unfettered, by us in Parliament. Governments often promise—I have heard them do so—to liberate or empower local government, but the liberation of local government by central Government often resembles Stalin’s post-war liberation of eastern Europe, as it simply allows discretion to decide on how to implement unpopular policies, thereby sharing or deflecting the blame.

Largely, and insistently, central Government retain all their rights to interfere in any area, at will, with little or no notice. I am not making a party political point; it is not in the DNA of central Government, irrespective of who is in power, to give away power that matters, and one can understand why. Local government deals with huge areas of national importance—education, social care, transport, the environment, the economic vitality of communities—and Ministers simply cannot be uninterested in what local government does or how it does it, so they keep in reserve, understandably, a range of powers, regulations and incentives to influence how local government performs. Parliament will not have its will crossed—it is, as they say, an elective dictatorship. The Bill aspires not to change any of that, but strives more modestly to stop elective dictatorship becoming or turning into elective tyranny.

There are in this Chamber bold constitutional visionaries, such as the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen), who propose a full constitutional settlement reserving to local government a whole set of autonomous powers, safeguarded by commissions, the Lords and a Bill of Rights; a constitutional demarcation between the powers of local and central Government, including revenue-raising powers. The Justice Committee—my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) is familiar with this—having surveyed all the evidence available scrupulously, has called for a new constitutional settlement, a new code. There is a glimmer in the eye of the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), who chairs the Communities and Local Government Committee, to produce a report on precisely that subject.

My aim is the more modest one of preventing elective dictatorship from becoming elective tyranny, because tyranny is the arbitrary, whimsical and indulgent use of power. The distinction is rather helpfully illustrated by the exemplary behaviour—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) has got there ahead of me. It is illustrated by the exemplary behaviour of our current Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. Only someone as gifted as him in the art of irony could possibly have introduced a Localism Bill—with over 100 new powers ascribed to himself. Only someone with a feel for the truly comic could wring £250 million out of the Chancellor in hard-pressed times in order that statesmen can interfere with the nation’s bins and council collection times, or could instructively chastise and threaten councils that have set their council tax exactly within the limits he himself laid down. As he himself has said, he takes liberties, but presumably only to demonstrate through a process of reductio ad absurdum how little power local government really has and how it can be removed, changed or denatured by the whim of Whitehall.

Taking liberties is not necessarily a good thing. My Bill seeks to mitigate that, first by requiring every Government to lay down in advance through a defined code their understanding of the respective powers of local and national Government, the areas of genuine autonomy, and specify devolved powers. That could be done, fully taking into account national needs, with or without consensus. However, that having been done, and there having been defined separate spheres of action—the rules of the game—everyone must stick to them, with an appeal to a judicial or quasi-judicial body when that understanding is breached by either party, or ridden over roughshod to suit the mood of whoever holds the reigns of central or local government.

The Bill simply aspires to put in place a guarantee of reasonably predictable behaviour, a self-denying ordinance. The Government could still dictate and legislate for a different relationship, but they would not be able to interfere arbitrarily. In fact, having to make it clear that they are not doing that is wholly to the good. They could not act on the spur of the moment. They would simply be denying themselves the opportunity to create havoc, either financial or administrative. There is fairness in that, because the previous Government insisted that local councils, when making major strategic decisions, give the population ample advance notice and engagement through publication and consultation—a kind of “no big surprises” rule. All that I expect through the Bill is that Whitehall would show similarly helpful self-discipline, particularly because councils, unlike Whitehall, have to balance their budgets annually and cannot cope too easily with handbrake turns in policy.

It seems to me that having to make clear Whitehall’s interest in interfering, as it does, with council’s planning policies, housing targets and borrowing arrangements, which are all contentious areas, and having to make a case and then abide by it, could hopefully throw up a plethora of anomalies and unjustifiable restraints and perhaps expose the dead-weight influence of state bureaucracy accrued over a fair period, which cannot be a bad thing. It might, in the process, rid me of an abiding and disturbing image of the Secretary of State as a languid eastern potentate or sultan governing by mood or arbitrary decree, and it would hopefully put the fraught relationship between local and central Government on a business-like footing. This issue, which has been raised in various parts of the House and in a number of different places, will not go away, unlike my Bill, which I commend to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Dr John Pugh, Mr Graham Allen, Sir Alan Beith, Mr Clive Betts, Paul Burstow, Rosie Cooper, Martin Horwood, Stephen Lloyd, Dan Rogerson, John Stevenson and Mr David Ward present the Bill.

Dr John Pugh accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 April, and to be printed (Bill 141).

We come now to the main business, Opposition day, 18th allotted day, which is a debate in the name of the Scottish National party on housing benefit and the under-occupancy penalty. To move the motion—

I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman. The motion is in the name of the Scottish National party, but it is also in the name of Plaid Cymru—[Interruption]—and of the Green party. It is indeed truly a joint motion: not a complete novelty, although relatively unusual, and very welcome. I stand corrected. To move the motion, I call Mr Angus Robertson. [Interruption.] No? Well, that is what I was briefed; I am following what I have been told. The hon. Gentleman is displaying a self-effacing modesty with which he is not always associated, but he is playing second fiddle today. I call Dr Eilidh Whiteford.