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Local Government: Representing the Future

Volume 698: debated on Wednesday 6 February 2008

My Lords, I declare an interest as an old, white, middle-class, male councillor. Despite that, I beg leave to ask the Government the following Question:

How they will respond to the Councillors Commission report Representing the Future.

My Lords, the Councillors Commission report was published in December. The Government welcome the report and the stimulus to debate that it provides. We are examining the recommendations in more detail and are consulting on the issues it raises. An overall government response to the report and recommendations will be published after Easter.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and look forward to the government response. Is it not the case that if the Government want to get a more diverse range of people actively involved on councils, rather than using gimmicks such as issuing local gongs, qualifications and degrees in being a councillor, redundancy payments, pensions, exit interviews and even free focus leaflets—if I read the report correctly—for councillors to distribute in their wards, they ought to return to local authorities the powers and status that they had 30 years ago? Within local authorities, they should return to councillors the powers, respect and status that they had 10 years ago.

My Lords, we did much of that in the Local Government Public Involvement in Health Bill, which the noble Lord and I had the pleasure of debating at inordinate length last year. We should give credit to the councillors who are trying so hard to address a very serious problem. We have very little diversity now; much less than we used to have. For example, only one-third of councillors are women and only 4 per cent of councillors come from black and ethnic minority groups. We really need to do more. The Councillors Commission’s report is excellent; it has a range of very serious recommendations, which we will look at very positively.

My Lords, it is a matter of regret to me that a very serious report seems to indicate that the ideal of serving one’s community is no longer enough motivation to get people who are of sufficient quality properly to do the job of councillor. Will the noble Baroness tell the House what the cost of these proposals would be if they were implemented in full? Would that not properly be a charge exclusively borne by the ratepayer, or would it become part of general expenditure, which would then be eligible for a government grant?

My Lords, it is interesting that the report reflects that the majority of councillors say that they derive enormous satisfaction from their roles. The report ends by asking, “Why don’t they say so?”. That is surely the best incentive to get people into local government. In terms of how much it would cost, there is a range of proposals, from reducing the voting age to 16 to much else, which will be considered in due course, perhaps by a Speaker’s Commission. When we review these, we will look at affordability, together with all the legal and other implications that the recommendations hold for us.

My Lords, this is a very important and worthwhile review. The Minister has given us a list of people that the Government hope to see representing the people in their communities, but she did not mention younger people. It is very important that we get people from a whole spectrum of age groups representing their own peer groups. Are the Government doing anything about this?

My Lords, it was a very important aspect of the commission’s consideration. It came up with the celebration of good practice; for example, young mayors elected by young people in places such as Lewisham and Newham. In addition, the Prime Minister’s speech in July anticipated the establishment of a youth citizenship commission, which will look at how schools, colleges and all other educational institutions will engage with politics. We have just reviewed key stages 3 and 4 of the national curriculum on citizenship, with a view to building up the element of that curriculum that connects with local democracy.

My Lords, how are the Government going to respond to the proposal in the report that council by-elections should be abolished in favour of a sort of reserve system? Does she not agree that if local democracy is to be healthy, people who come on to councils must have their own personal mandate and not come in through the back door on someone else’s coat-tails?

My Lords, we have expressed some reservations about that proposal, and there have been demonstrations in Wales on the process. It will be considered along with all the other recommendations for term limits and so on that affect the operation of councils.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the problem is not just about the resources and the ability of councillors to deal with problems? The report indicates that in a number of ways. Is it not also about the problem of ordinary people in society not knowing how to use a councillor? One of the problems in our political system is that people often think that they must go to their Member of Parliament first because they see them as being at the top of the pyramid of power, instead of recognising that in many cases the first port of call should be the councillor. That is a difficult link to make. It is not apparent to me from the report that we are addressing that in the detail that is needed.

My Lords, one of the most important recommendations in the report is recommendation 1, which looks at how local government can promote the democratic process and address the question of people not having enough information. One of the paradoxes is that while 60 per cent of people think that their services have improved, only half think that their council is better. This is about closing that gap. A lot of it is about how we explain and get more out of the work of councillors, particularly ward councillors, who now have a duty to engage with and involve local people.

My Lords, the Minister said that she thinks most local councillors find the work very interesting and satisfying. Does that mean that she is not aware of the great dissatisfaction of councillors with the new cabinet structure, where they find a great dichotomy between those who are cabinet members and who therefore know everything that is going on in the council, and others who are not in the cabinet and who find that they are not informed to the extent that they were before this new arrangement?

My Lords, we discussed in the local government Bill what impact the cabinet system has over the committee system and certainly there are issues around that. The report addressed that and said that local government is no less important or interesting a place for councillors to be. The emphasis in the Bill now has changed to the engagement between the ward councillor and the individual constituency. There is a major job to be done to get people to understand what councillors do and what they can do for them. It is a challenge to which most councillors would really respond.

My Lords, is the Minister quite sure, in the light of recent events not very far from here, that paying councillors more and giving them greater expenses is likely to improve their standing in the eyes of the electorate?

My Lords, I do not think that there is any appetite for putting councillors on a professional footing. There is no indication in the report about that. Satisfaction is still derived from the notion of public service, which we are very glad about. Most councillors see serving the public as a privilege. While there are issues around allowances, they have to be considered in that context and not as a way of creating a different professional class.