Lib Dem peer calls for amendments to clarify 'prescriptive' Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Bill
Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Greaves, scrutinised the Government's Local Economic Development and Construction Bill during its second reading in the House of Lords. In lengthy and detailed discussions of the Bill's various proposals - designed to devolve power to local government - Lord Greaves continually challenged the Government on its micromanaging, centralised approached.
Debating provisions that set out how local authorities should deal with petitions, Lord Greaves argued:
"If the Government want quite dramatically to increase the ability of people to organise and present petitions to their local authorities, or if they want to ensure that it happens in those areas where it is not done at the moment...the Government should not legislate but encourage what they might call best practice generally. I cannot remember a single occasion when the national Government have gone to local councils, either individually or as a whole, and said, "Petitions are a good thing. You should have systems for dealing with them sensibly when you get them. You ought perhaps to encourage people to present them to you, and when they do so, you should look at them properly and deal with them properly. Perhaps you should also have systems under your own council's standing orders, constitutions and conventions to enable this to happen". The Government have never done that. Yet they are saying that, in order to ensure that all authorities do it, they must legislate and do so in a detailed, top-down way that will produce a lot of uniformity.
"Authorities do not need to do that. If there was a joint initiative between the Government, the Local Government Association and other interested bodies, we would get to the point at which pretty well all local authorities in the country operated a sensible system for receiving and dealing with petitions. If that were to happen, there would be one real difference compared with what will happen after this Bill passes, if it passes in its present form: there would be a huge amount of variety of practice in different places. That would be a good thing, because local people could work out what was best in their area and on their council and because a variety of practice is the only way to work out what is best practice. Unless you have such a variety, you know what the uniform, centrally imposed practice is, but you never know what the best practice is and what is not so good, which means that authorities are much less able to learn from one another.
"Variety would be our choice but, if the Government say no, local authorities really must have a duty placed on them. If you cannot trust local authorities to do something quite as simple as dealing sensibly with petitions from the public, it is a poor do - very disappointing and wrong. It is possible to have a genuinely light-touch approach that sets out the duty, lays down a few principles and then trusts councils to get on with it. If, having done that, and after two or three or four or five years' experience, there are still problems, you can legislate as a backstop in the future. You have done it the right way around; you have trusted people and you have allowed them to do their own thing. If we are talking about local democracy, for heaven's sake, surely that is how it should happen as a matter of principle.
"There is, as I said, another possible approach - the Government's approach - which is detailed, top-down, prescriptive legislation: eight pages, with 3,000 words of primary legislation on how to present a petition to your local council and how the council should deal with it. In addition, we will get reams of guidance, compulsion and uniformity. I have to say that the Government are making themselves look ridiculous."
He continued to criticise the Government's bureaucratic approach:
"The problem is that, if the Government make all these detailed rules and regulations, inevitably there will be difficulties because they will not cover everything. The more details you include, the more detailed the legislation has to get as you discover anomalies where things are not covered and where those that are have been dealt with wrongly. As a matter of principle, there ought to be as few rules as possible.
"Secondly, the fact that these are top-down rules causes problems. They do not allow for local circumstances, they certainly do not address local wishes, and they may be dangerous in relation to schemes that are already in place.
"Thirdly, the schemes will cost more in money and resources to implement because not just those people already working in councils will need to do all this; the Government themselves will have to take people on for it. The whole Bill is a wonderful job creation scheme. It may be part of what the Government are after, because there is a recession and people are losing their jobs. More jobs can be created for civil servants to administer these detailed schemes, for writing, consulting and revising the regulations, and then for monitoring everyone's websites to make sure that they are doing it right. That is what we were told would happen when we considered the previous group of amendments. Are we really going to employ civil servants to supervise and control democratically elected local authorities? It is crazy."
Read full details of Liberal Democrat Amendments and the debate here