Councillors on the front line

 In Parliament, Speeches

I delivered this speech in the House of Commons on 5th September 2013, it can be found here. 

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Madam Chairman. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) and his Committee on their report. I am delighted to take part in this debate. It is very important to me, as I believe that I am the most recently arrived former council leader in the House. I also had the huge honour of serving as deputy chairman of the Local Government Association until I came here nine months ago.

From my experience, I can confirm what the report says: that the role of the councillor is changing fast. It is becoming much more demanding, not least because the expectations of citizens and Government are increasing at a time when resources are dramatically reducing in ways that no one involved in local government can remember in their professional lives. Councillors give up a huge amount of their time to help make their communities better places in which to live or work, and that causes, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East mentioned, problems for them in their work and home lives. I had the experience that he had also heard of: a councillor came to me when I was leader of the council in Lambeth and said that she had been told to remove her experience as a councillor from her CV to help her get a job.

If that is how the world views the role of the councillor, it behoves all of us involved in public life to help change that reputation and promote the truth of the matter, which is that the role helps develop skills and abilities that are of immense value elsewhere in individuals’ working lives. It would be good if more employers understood that and if the Government reinforced it, by treating councillors more like military reservists and perhaps promoting the idea that they should be given time off to carry out their important work.

I agree that we need a much more diverse and representative group of councillors representing our communities. We need more women, more young people and more people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. During my time as leader of the opposition in Lambeth, up until 2006, we ran a three-year programme that identified people from precisely those groups, offering them shadowing, mentoring and training, and supporting them to stand as councillors. We were delighted in 2006 when that bore fruit, with the biggest increase in BME representation anywhere in the country that year. That model has been used by all parties in other places but, sadly, it is not yet used everywhere. I commend the LGA for its work, through the Be a Councillor campaign, to extend such models.

To return to my point about the need to promote the positive role of councillors, I immensely regret how the Government are doing the opposite of what is needed by denigrating councillors’ work. Certainly the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government seems to take great delight in misleading people about the work done by councillors and insulting their work, which is enormously regrettable.

The Secretary of State’s proposal to abolish councillors’ pensions is nothing short of spiteful, especially given that he, as a Member of Parliament, is fully aware that he is very nicely sorted out in that respect. Councillors’ remuneration is certainly not excessive. The average payment to a councillor is £7,000 per annum. I do not think that that over-compensates them for their work and the time and potential income, if they are self-employed or employed, that they give up to carry out their important role do not want a situation in which the only people who can afford to be councillors are the retired, people on benefits or the wealthy. We need more people who are working hard and have young families to sit on our councils and influence decisions affecting the whole community; we cannot have only some sections of the community being able to afford the time to be councillors, which means giving councillors some financial compensation for the time they give up.

How disappointing to hear the chairman of the Conservative party, the right hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps), compare the role of a councillor with that of a scout leader. Councils and councillors run multi-million pound organisations, employ thousands of people and are charged with transforming services in line with the disproportionately heavy cuts forced on them by the very Ministers who belittle and demean their work.

When the current comprehensive spending review was announced, it was disappointing to see the Secretary of State in effect fiddling the figures, in my view, by adding to the base sums of money that were never within local government responsibility in the first place before working out the percentage reductions. The purpose was of course to make the overall cut in funding for local authorities look smaller than it really is.

It is worth commenting that, in reality, local government is getting a bigger percentage cut than any national Department. The National Audit Office confirms that local government is the most efficient tier of government. We should look to local government to learn lessons, not demonise it to allow the national Government and national Departments to get away with smaller efficiencies than they could deliver.

Pretending, as I regularly hear Ministers do, that councils can lose what amounts to up to 50% of their discretionary funding without that affecting front-line services, through some kind of imagined and miraculous efficiency savings, is a ludicrous position to adopt and demeans those who mouth it. That would be a feat that no public service organisation has managed to deliver, and it is a fiction by Ministers that is worthy of nomination for the Man Booker prize. It should certainly not be thrown into a debate about the future funding and resourcing of vital public services on which our communities depend.

The need for localism is growing like never before. The Government like to talk local, but they often centralise decision making under a veil of language—the opposite of what they are saying. It is true that not only this Government but every Government I can remember have behaved liked that. I hope that if there is a Labour Government after the next election, they will genuinely seek to devolve power to local government, and localise it, in a way that we have not seen before.

Local government is finding out and identifying new ways to run public services that take account of the drastic reductions in public service funding over recent years. In my view, the business model for local government is bust: it cannot continue in the future in the same way as in the past, because the reduction in resources is so drastic. Funding has changed dramatically, and so too have the expectations of citizens, who want more choice over public services and want those services to be more responsive to their needs. We must face up to the fact that top-down public services have had negative consequences, including in sapping the self-reliance of some individuals who have become heavily dependent on them, so capping their aspirations to lead better lives. Many councils of all parties, recognising those points, are considering how to transform public services by empowering citizens and co-producing services with them in ways that better meet the outcomes that citizens and communities can define for themselves.