Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill

Second Reading:


Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP):
I do not intend to spend a great deal of time speaking on the Bill, as clearly it affects only England and Wales, not Scotland. However, I would like to offer a few observations and questions that I hope will be of value.

First, I ask the House to consider the journey that Scotland has been on. The people of Scotland have been seeking devolution in some form or other for many decades. The experiences of the no vote in the 1979 referendum, the yes vote in the 1997 referendum and the recent independence referendum have all shaped public views on what devolution means and how it should operate. We arrived at this situation through public and civil society demanding change in a way that I am not quite convinced is yet the case for England’s cities and regions. Devolution should not be done in haste, and great consideration should be given to its purpose and the means by which local people will be involved.

Scotland is a hub of expertise on the devolution process, and we feel that public engagement is critical. We recognised the hunger for local community power by passing the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 in the Scottish Parliament and introducing the “Empowering Scotland’s Island Communities” consultation, in which the islands have demanded more powers from the Scottish Government. We support more efforts to deliver devolution for local authorities, but the process must be transparent and consider the views of local communities.

In the past two years there has been great consideration by organisations such as Common Weal and the Electoral Reform Society Scotland, as well as by other civic groups and individuals, such as Lesley Riddoch, whose book, “Blossom: What Scotland Needs to Flourish”, looks at what shape democracy should take and how local people can be more involved in the process. I recommend that Members have a look at Lesley’s book to see how the bottom-up approach can be taken. I have asked the Library if it could seek a copy for their information. I also direct Members to the Electoral Reform Society Scotland’s Democracy Max project, which looked at the idea of “mini publics” as a means of engaging the public in shaping their own democracy. I very much agree with the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) that double devolution must go through local communities as well, and cannot stop at the mayoral level.

My reading of this Bill is that it is, sadly, very top down. Powers are being given rather than demanded, and there is still the same level of control from the centre. I agree with the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) about that. An example is the imposition of mayors against the will of local people, particularly those who rejected such a principle in local referendums. Transferring powers from a centralised Westminster system to an all-powerful mayor is not really, in practice, local participatory democracy. People do not have a say, and that reflects on the legitimacy that the mayor will then have. If people are to have faith in the process, a good deal more work needs to be done to establish what they want their local democracy to look like and what powers it should have.

Mr Gareth Thomas: Londoners are broadly comfortable with the originally established system of devolution in London, but one thing they look enviously at in Scotland is the power to control and shape housing policy. Would the SNP look sympathetically on an amendment from London Back Benchers seeking to give that power to London?

Alison Thewliss: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point on the ability to control housing policy. While the SNP is not necessarily going to vote on this because it is an England and Wales-only Bill, we strongly agree with the principle that housing should be in the control of London, and other local authorities as well, because if people are unable to control the housing stock or to make decisions about construction, funding and everything else, they are hamstrung in their ability to influence local housing supply.

I seek to establish the Government’s true purpose in devolution to cities and to local government. Members may remember that Scottish devolution was supposed to have killed the SNP stone dead, but if that were its purpose, it has demonstrably failed, despite the fact that our Members are not in the Chamber today. If devolution to cities and local government in England and Wales is based on the general principal of the importance of local decision making and democracy, that is a worthy ideal that I absolutely support, but if, as suggested by a lot of the rhetoric, it is simply about economics and growth rather than democracy, I am less convinced. Tying the deals to economic indicators puts a great deal of pressure on the new set-up, and I fear that it could then be a hostage to economic fortune. Should it not meet those economic targets and goals, it could be seen by the Government and by local people not to have achieved the objectives that were put on it.

I also seek an assurance that devolution is not being used as a cover for cuts. A lot of people involved in the NHS, in particular, are concerned about this. Like other Members, no doubt, I have had lots of representations from various organisations. This should not be a cover for regionalisation of the NHS by the back door. That is fine if Scotland has control over the NHS, which is a great thing, but it should be debated on its own as a case that can stand or fall on its own merits. To cut funding and blame the new authority would make the position of that authority absolutely untenable.

In this place, decision making feels very far away from ordinary people, whether they be in Wick, Glasgow, Manchester or Cornwall. I hope that this Bill will create and engage a groundswell of support for local democracy in England, and that powers and money are returned from Westminster to local people, as they should be. I urge the Government to consider how best to embed the principle of subsidiarity within the Bill, and to seek and listen to the views of local people on what they are seeking from their democracy.

Committee of the Whole House – Day 2


Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP): I rise to speak in support of the comments made on this side of the House about votes for those aged 16 and 17. It is odd that the House of Lords, the unelected Chamber at the other end, should have become the defender of the right of young people to vote in this country. Its wise intervention should be maintained, however, because our experience in Scotland of having 16 and 17-year-olds voting has been very positive.

It is interesting that, since my election to this House in May, every opportunity to discuss the matter has been met with the comment that it is neither the time nor the place to debate it. I should like to ask the Minister when the right time and place would be, because we should seize every opportunity to have these discussions. There is always a good time to get people involved in politics and in voting. Starting at local level, where local services are delivered to young people, is a good way of getting them involved because their schools, youth services and other local services are relevant to them at first hand. They can see what local government does and get directly involved in it.

It is interesting that lots of Members have mentioned the referendum. In my experience, speaking to young people during the two years that we spent debating the referendum was incredibly positive for their engagement. Anyone who saw the debate that filled the Glasgow Hydro arena with young people will remember that it was one of the best in the whole referendum campaign, with incredibly engaged young people making incredibly valuable contributions.

The leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, has become converted to this argument. She has said:

“I’m happy to hold my hands up and say I changed my mind. I’m a fully paid-up member of the ‘votes at 16’ club now, for every election. I thought 16 and 17-year-olds were fantastic during the referendum campaign. I can’t tell you the number of hustings and public meetings I did, and some of the younger members of the audience were the most informed.”

That tells us everything we need to know about how young people ought to be engaged in politics and why they need to be.

John Stevenson: I am looking for a bit of consistency in the argument for reducing the voting age for 16 and 17-year-olds. Would the hon. Lady suggest that, if they had the right to vote and the right to stand for election, we should also consider reducing the age limit for alcohol consumption and for driving?

Alison Thewliss: There would be public health concerns relating to the alcohol question, and those are entirely different from democratic concerns. The right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) talked about party manifestos. If 16 and 17-year-olds were able to vote, perhaps they would campaign on issues such as those, but we do not know whether that is the case because they do not have the right to vote in elections to this place or to local authorities, which have licensing powers.

The Minister mentioned that parties that included votes at 16 in their manifesto had not been particularly successful. I have to correct him on that. The Scottish National party had that proposal in its manifesto and we were very successful. I know that 16 and 17-year-olds welcome and respect the rights and responsibilities that we have placed on them. If they are going to be subject to taxation, it is perfectly reasonable that they should have the right to vote.

Turning to some of the other matters under discussion, I am a huge supporter of the single transferrable vote, the system under which I was elected as a councillor. The introduction of that system made a huge difference to the local authority of which I was a member. Before the introduction of STV in Glasgow, only four of the 79 councillors represented the SNP; when the STV election was held, we fielded 22 candidates and we got 22 candidates elected.

The result of these changes can be seen in the Electoral Reform Society’s report of 2010, entitled “Working with STV”. It used Glasgow as a case study and interviewed officers from that council, one of whom stated that Glasgow “has a council again”. There is proper debate and scrutiny. More recent work by the Electoral Reform Society on the need for electoral reform has found that councils that do not have a system such as STV can become one-party states with uncontested seats and, in the worst cases, there is a risk of corruption due to the lack of scrutiny of council decisions.

My understanding is that England already has lots of multi-member wards, with officers elected on a rolling basis. Those could be retained while introducing STV, which could mean fewer elections—providing a saving to the public purse—while bringing a good element of local democracy, accountability and proportionality to those councils. There would not necessarily be a need to change any wards, but a great deal more democracy could be brought into them.

Mr Andrew Turner: May I ask what would happen in single wards? All but one of the wards in my constituency are single wards.

Alison Thewliss: I appreciate that English local government is complex and has lots of different examples. In Scotland, we had a boundary review which looked at ward sizes and shapes. My experience, having been elected under that system in 2007 and re-elected under it in 2012, is that it works very well for our constituents, because they always have three or four representatives to take their issues to. At the very best, they have a good team of people standing up for their local area. At worst, if they have a councillor who is not doing what is needed, people have an option to go to two or three others who can represent them. That is good for our constituents, and they see the value in that arrangement. A process whereby local councils could decide on this issue by themselves might need further thought, but it is an interesting idea. If the House is not going to take any action to introduce STV, we should certainly allow local government to do it if it wishes to. There would be great value in that.

I also want to talk about local referendums. They are a good thing for local democracy and responsiveness to issues involving a local demand. People should be able to have a say on the matters that affect them, and that could also include the question of revising the way in which local government is set up in their area. The local government arrangements might not be working well, for example, or there might be no clear lines of accountability. There has been a great deal of debate on those issues in relation to elected mayors and to how the rest of the process below them would need to change.

John Stevenson
: On that point about elected mayors, does the hon. Lady believe that the great cities of Scotland should have the opportunity to hold referendums to decide whether to have an elected mayor?

Alison Thewliss: People are not generally calling for that in Scotland. There has not been that tradition there. If people wanted to hold such referendums, that would be absolutely fine. Lots of councils in Scotland have petitions processes whereby people can submit arguments to the council for consideration, and if they wanted an elected mayor, that could be achieved through that process. The Scottish Parliament also has a petitions process that would allow areas that wanted an elected mayor to take a petition to the Scottish Government. So there are processes in place that would allow for that to happen, if there were a demand for it. However, there is no tradition of elected mayors in Scotland. In Glasgow and other local authorities, we have a political head in the leader of the council and a strong civic head in the Lord Provost or the local provost.

The hon. Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) asked me the question about elected mayors in Scotland, but his own Conservative Government have acknowledged that we have no such tradition, because there was no suggestion of a mayor being imposed as part of the Glasgow and Clyde Valley city deal, as is happening in other parts of the UK. His own party does not seem to think that there is any rationale for elected mayors in Scotland. The Bill provides a good opportunity to try out a number of different measures that could improve local government and make it more democratic and accountable, and I support the principles behind these amendments.