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Hansard 18 Nov:Column 125 et seq ...
Hansard 18 Nov:Column 125 et seq

Government's self-styled modernising proposals for local government were condemned by opposition parties as centralised and prescriptive when MPs began their first full day's debate on the Queen's speech.

Both Conservative and Liberal Democrat spokesmen shadowing the DETR pledged to fight for the right for councils to continue with a committee/council structure if they wished to.

And former Conservative environment secretary Michael Heseltine - who urged that local government should be set free - taunted the government that it was trying to prevent Ken Livingstone from running, and damaging, London. The difference was, said Mr Heseltine, he had achieved his aim.

Conservative spokesman John Redwood said despite the current fiasco in London, Labour had decided to re-enact the same scenes throughout the country with a Bill to 'bamboozle' many more towns and cities into having executive mayors.

Bearing in mind the experience of senior ministers when crises arose in Wales and London, would John Prescott get a call from Downing Street telling him Labour was desperate for a candidate it could trust to be mayor of Leeds or Liverpool? he asked.

'The opposition think that Labour should stop bashing local government. We believe that if a council wishes to keep a committee structure, in which all councillors can be involved on an even footing, it should be allowed to do so', added Mr Redwood, who was heckled by MPs.

Responding, he said: 'The government do not like this at all, because they know that there is much that is good in the present system of local government which they intend to sweep aside.'

Mr Redwood said Mr Prescott should understand the anger, in Labour as well as Conservative local government, at the prospect that existing practices would not be allowed to continue under his proposed legislation.

'I urge him to think again. If he does not we shall table amendments to enable the existing system to continue. We regard this as another of Labour's modernisations, which would drive a bulldozer through the checks and balances of our local constitution, exactly as they have done in our national constitution.'

Mr Redwood added that the secretary of state had a good deal of thinking to do to try to make the councillor's role a decent and good one in some of the models proposed, especially in the model of the elected mayor 'which represents a massive downgrading of the elected council and councillors'.

Graham Brady, Conservative MP for Altrincham and Sale West, said Trafford MBC had already embarked on a cabinet-style administration. Many Labour councillors were feeling excluded from the process and increasingly frustrated at their inability to do their jobs.

Liberal Democrat spokesman Don Foster said he agreed with Mr Heseltine that local government must be freed from the chains imposed on it by governments of both complexions and Whitehall. But he was delighted that section 28 [of the Local Government Act] was to be repealed because it 'was an illiberal measure which should never have reached the statute book'.

He continued: 'We are worried that there is an overall lack of flexibility in the proposals to modernise local government. If we are to free local government we should allow it, with the agreement of local communities, greater opportunity to decide how best to conduct its business. That decision should not be made centrally.

'There is too much concentration on structures rather than on outcomes, about which we should all be concerned. I am worried that the centralising tendency will be perpetuated in the Bill.'

Mr Foster said three items were missing from the Bill: a general power of competence enabling councils to tackle all matters apart from those that they are specifically prohibited from tackling; a fairer funding system; and the introduction of local income tax.

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