02 October 2002

S1M-3128 Local Government in Scotland Bill: Stage 1

The Presiding Officer (Sir David Steel): Our main item of business today is the stage 1 debate on motion S1M-3128, in the name of Andy Kerr, on the general principles of the Local Government in Scotland Bill.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I congratulate all members—from all parties—of the Local Government Committee. In their deliberations they upheld to a fine standard the supportive criticism that always benefits our legislative process. Of course, I was not part of those deliberations, so I come to the debate as rather an outsider.

When I was first confronted with the phase "power of well-being", I was reminded of a device that business executives like me received at Christmas about 25 years ago. The device was the Honeywell buzzword generator, which had three circles of words that one twirled until a random phrase was generated. The phrase "power of well-being" may return to haunt us. It probably conceals from the general public what we are trying to achieve, rather than conveying that to them.

Perhaps it was wise of Labour to stand no closer to the phrase "general competence", because Labour stands no closer to competence than it does to anything else. In the corridors of Labour councils, the party is deeply unfamiliar with the word "competence". Well-being is an interesting term. It relieves councils of the ultra vires burden, or straitjacket, that constrains many of their actions.

I cannot help but note some of the doubts that were expressed by the Society of Local Authority Lawyers and Administrators in Scotland, whose written evidence appears at page 124 of the Local Government Committee's report. The society recommended that there be some amendment to the bill to assist councils in ensuring that the power of well-being is implemented appropriately.

I want to trust councils and I want them to have the power to do what will benefit their local communities. Would that we trusted this Parliament as much, and allowed ourselves to do anything that we considered likely to promote or improve the well-being of our area or our people. We are, of course, constrained. It is strange that we can confer a power on others that we are not permitted to confer upon ourselves.

Councils generally remain underfunded—although there is a little debate about that—undervalued and, probably, over-regulated. The bill helps, in that it makes a start to addressing those problems. The Government should not be complacent; it is making only a small change to the rigidities that were established under the Tories.

Members may not be aware that Scotland has the fewest elected representatives per head of population in Europe. We have some 32 per 100,000, compared with England, which has 42, and, at the other end of the scale, Greece, which has about 650. There are certainly different patterns throughout Europe. We expect a lot of all our elected representatives, including our councillors. In many ways, therefore, it is regrettable that we have not addressed voting reform and the way in which councillors are elected, which have been under discussion for so long, in the bill.

We have to open the door to a wider range of people who might consider standing as councillors. The opportunities are too narrow at the moment. That idea has, in effect, been put on death row by Labour, and only the Liberals appear to fail to see that.

Councils matter to people. They affect all our lives. A substantial proportion of the work that comes through my door—I am sure that this the case for many other members—emanates from the actions or omissions of councils, so we know that they are important.

I was once fortunate to work for a very imaginative chief executive, who had two instructions for his management team, of which I was part. The first was, "We must break the rules at least once a week." Only by doing that do we test the boundaries of our authority and of the rules that constrain the organisation for which we work. The second was, "We must fail some of the time." Only by failing do we demonstrate that we are taking sufficient risks to succeed where it really matters.

I hope that the bill will encourage more risk taking in our councils—imaginative and responsible risk taking, with councils always returning to correct any mistakes that they make in a way that does not affect the people whom they serve. I hope, too, that the bill will encourage councils to break the rules and to take the opportunity that is created by the elimination of the ultra vires straitjacket.

The bill will be very welcome if its provisions are there to be followed. It will enable councils, councillors and communities to release their full potential.


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